History of Solar Cooking

Solar Cooking actually has some pretty early recorded beginnings starting with the documented efforts of French-Swiss Physicist Horace de Saussure in 1767. 

But the use of solar energy within various cultures through out history begins much further back in time. The use of solar energy in its simplest forms was known to have existed amongst the Greeks, Romans and the Chinese, though it was not used for cooking purposes.

It was not until de Saussure's time that cooking with solar energy was even attempted.

The history of this unique art is long, but is difficult to present in a complete and detailed manner due to a lack of documentation and verification.

It is not until most recently, the last twenty years in fact, that we have seen greater strides and developments occur in this field.

We have much more recorded information on the subject today, and it is helping to spread the knowledge and application of this beneficial art.

One of the best sources I have found on Solar Cooking History is by the Author and advocate Barbara Knudson,who has been involved with the movement for over twenty years now. She has written a well documented time line about solar cooking while expanding on the subject with more detail.

You can read an excerpt from her published book State of the Art of Solar Cooking (an excellent Ancient Documentary) at the solarcookers.org wiki and there you can also find information about the Author and her work.

Also, for documented sources of current information on the continuing progress and accomplishments in this field throughout the world, see our page on world wide initiatives.


As for solar cooking here in the US, the movement did not have much of a presence or a foundation until about the early 1970s, although there were some scattered documentations of cases of individuals who had built and used solar cookers for experimental and entertainment purposes as far back as the 1940s and 50s. The most recognized first real advocate here in the United States is considered to be Barbara Kerr of Arizona. She is attributed with having desinged and developed the first feasible and functional box style solar cooker in the US.

The first parabolic solar cooker was developed in the early 1950s by M L Ghai at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Delhi, India.

Below is a general timeline of the history of Solar Cooking. This time line courtesy of Solar Cookers International.

This time line along with other solar cooking information and news is found on Solar Cooker International's Solar Cooking Wiki.

Solar cooking timeline 

HISTORY OF SOLAR COOKING-up to July 1987 

1200s - People have sun-dried fruits, vegetables, fish and meats for eight centuries to preserve them

1600s- A German physicist, E.W. von Tschirnhousen, made large lenses to boil water in a clay pot. This was first reported in the first-published study of solar cookers in 1767 by French-Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure (Halacy, p. 3)

1767- Saussure’s was the first recorded effort to solar cook food. He built a miniature greenhouse with 5 layers of glass boxes turned upside down on a black table and reported cooking fruit. He later built a cooker of 2 pine boxes topped with 3 layers of glass, and later still added wool insulation between the two boxes. He predicted, “Someday some usefulness might be drawn from this device …(for it) is actually quite small, inexpensive, (and) easy to make” (Saussure, pp 55,59). French contemporary, DuCarlu, added mirrors and reported cooking meat in one hour (Halacy, 1992, p. 3).

1830- English astronomer Sir John Herschell cooked food in a similar insulated box on an expedition to South Africa

1860s and 70s- Augustin Mouchot was the first to combine the box/oven heat trap and burning mirrors concepts to create a solar oven, a solar still, a solar pump and ultimately the first solar steam engine. He saw great commercial potential in France’s sun-rich, fuel-poor colonies in North Africa and Asia.
In 1877 Mouchot devised solar cookers for French soldiers in Algeria, including a shiny metal cone, made from a 105.5 degree section of a circle. He baked bread in 3 hours, built a separate cooker to steam vegetables, tried shishkabobs in a parabolic cooker and also wrote the first book on Solar Energy and its Industrial Applications. He also pasteurized water and wine, and worked on a solar device to break down water to hydrogen and oxygen.
When improved coal transport and better political relations with England restored France’s source of coal, interest in solar energy waned and a discouraged Mouchot went back to teaching math. (Butti & Perlin, pp 66, 70-73; Narayanaswamy 2001, p. 93; Halacy, 1992, p. 3).

1876- In India W. Adams developed an octagonal oven with 8 mirrors which cooked rations for 7 soldiers in 2 hours (Narayanaswamy, 2001, p. 72).
Dr. Charles G. Abbot, Secretary of the American Smithsonian Institution, was the first recorded inventor of solar cookers in which the heat collector was outside in the sun but the cooker itself was in the house, with heat carried from collector to cooker by circulating oil. This solar boiler’s stored heat allowed cooking in the evening.

1884- Another Smithsonian scientist, Dr. Samuel P. Langley, solar cooked meals atop Mt. Whitney in California (Halacy, p. 4).

1891- Clarence Kemp, ‘father of solar energy in the USA,’ patented a solar water heater that enjoyed broad popularity, especially in California. Nearly 30% of houses in Pasadena had solar water heating systems by 1897. This industry declined during WWII when copper, a key material, was heavily rationed (Sklar & Sheinkopf, 1995).

1894- Xiao’s Duck Shop in Sichuan, China, roasted ducks by solar cooking (Wang, X., 1992, p. 12).

1930s- France sent many solar cookers to its colonies in Africa. India began to investigate solar energy as a substitute for dwindling wood and depletion of soil from burning crop residues and dung (Halacy, p. 4).

1940s – 70s- Dr. Maria Telkes in the USA researched several combination types of solar cookers, including some with heat retention chemicals (Halacy, P. 4) and published a book, Solar Ovens, in 1968 (Hoda, 1981, p. 5).

1945- Indian pioneer Sri M. K. Ghosh designed the first solar box cooker to be commercially produced (Hoda, p. 5).

1950s- Water heaters were popular in Florida until electricity rates fell with plentiful, government-subsidized energy, and consumers were urged to use more and more (Sklar & Sheinkopf, 1995).
Indian scientists in government laboratories designed and manufactured commercial solar ovens and solar reflectors, but they weren’t readily accepted, partly because there were still lower-cost alternatives.
Farrington Daniels and George Löf at the U. of Wisconsin, USA, introduced concentrator cookers in northern Mexico, with some acceptance, and Tom Lawand et al, Brace Research Institute at McGill U., Canada, tested steam cookers in several developing countries, but in these areas, too, there were still lower-cost alternatives for households. (Halacy, p. 4).

1955- The International Solar Energy Society began as the Association for Applied Solar Energy, whose first conference in Phoenix, AZ, USA, included many practical solar cookers. By then the technical basics of solar cooking were known. Exhibited solar cookers included parabolics by J.L. Ghai of India, Georg O.G. Löf (US), Adnan Tarcici (Lebanon) and S. Goto (Japan) and box cookers by Maria Telkes (US) and Freddy Ba Hli (Burma)

1959- The U. N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) measured water-heating capacities of a parabolic cooker and an oven type cooker (Löf, 1963, p. 132).

1960s- The U.N. tried a few pilot projects with a variety of elaborate devices designed by engineers with little or no attention to consumer needs, then blamed ‘resistance to change’ for lack of immediate intensive use.

1961- A United Nations Conference on New Sources of Energy included many solar cooker pioneers, including Telkes, Löf, Duffie, Pruta and Abu-Hussein.

1970s- Spreading deforestation prompted research and promotion of solar cooking by governments of China and India. A petroleum shortage temporarily created new interest in renewable energy worldwide.

1973- Barbara Kerr, USA, built many types of concentrator and box type solar cookers from descriptions, including Ghosh’s box cooker in India. She used simplest materials inspired by retained heat cookers (‘hay boxes’) and developed low-cost, simple solar cookers using recycled materials and aluminum foil. She worked with Bob Larson through People united for Self-Help to share these simple solar tools with homeless and low-income neighborhoods.

1976- Kerr and her neighbor, Sherry Cole, cooked 2 meals per day for 40 people for two weeks for a women’s conference. Kerr, an RN with a Masters in social work also did extensive pioneer work on solar food dryers, sanitizers and sterilizers and through-the-wall solar cookers.

1978- Kerr and Cole began small-scale production and promotion of cookers and plans for people to make their own. Prof. Bob Metcalf learned about Kerr-Cole cookers through Fred Barrett, USDA, bought one, and immediately became a regular user and began research on their germ-killing capacities. He quickly became a promoter of solar cookers both in the Sacramento area and beyond, teaching many in Sacramento including Thais Thomas who in turn taught Clark and Eleanor Shimeall (who wrote a still-popular cookbook). Bob Larson was giving workshops on building solar water heaters.

1979- The Organization of African Unity held the 1st of 7 sessions on New, Renewable and Solar Energies. The most recent was in 2000 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Dr. Metcalf, with student Marshall Longvin documented water pasteurization in solar box cookers.

1980s 

  • The governments of India and China expanded national promotion of box cookers and curved concentrators respectively.
  • Brace Research Institute, McGill U., Canada, researched and field tested solar cookers
  • Prof. Shyam S. Nandwani in Costa Rica researched solar cookers
  • Tudor Roberts in Zimbabwe taught his students about a variety of solar cookers he himself made and used.
  • Box cookers were distributed to 20,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan by SERVE (Serving emergency Relief and Vocational Enterprises). Types included hole-in-ground cookers.
  • 1st major media in U.S.: ‘81 the national Christian Science Monitor newspaper featured Bob Metcalf.
  • Heather Gurley Larson wrote first U.S. solar cookbook, Solar Cooking Naturally, in ’83.
  • Metcalf and Fred Barrett at USDA designed prototypes of the WAPI. In ’84 Metcalf published his 1st solar water pasteurizing article, and in ’85 his 9-page instructions for building solar box cookers.
  • ULOG was started by Ulrich and Lisel Oehler to promote box and parabolic cookers in many countries.
  • Bill and Thelma Rogers began weekly workshops for people to build their own solar cookers in a West Sacramento senior center. These continued for about 10 years.
  • With Kerr-Cole instructions, solar cookers were built in Kitui, Kenya in ‘85

1986- The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that ¼ of humanity suffers fuelwood shortages and predicted that by 2000 scarcities would affect ½. Eleanor and Clark Shimeall taught Bev Blum to make cookers and suggested that someone should share this know-how with women in fuel-scarce parts of the world.

1987- Bob Metcalf, Bill Sperber and Aaron Zazueta introduced solar cookers in the Bolivian Altiplano to Aymaran Indians, through Meals for Millions and sponsored by Pillsbury Company. This was the first of many, many trips by Bob (see list below) Bev met with Barbara Kerr and Sherry Cole in AZ, and, with Dr. Anne Funkhouser, met Bob Metcalf and drafted a case for creating an organization about the same time Dave Martin independently contacted Kerr and Cole about promoting solar cookers in underdeveloped areas. 




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