In the winter of 1901, tourists enjoying the luxurious weather and swanky resort hotels of southern California were intrigued by a handbill widely distributed throughout Pasadena, Altadena and nearby towns. “Visit the Ostrich Farm—100 Gigantic Birds,” the bill proclaimed in bold typeface above a black and white photo of the long-necked, prehistoric-looking creatures. The farm, owned and operated by transplanted British entrepreneur Edwin Cawston, was the only one of its kind in the United States and a well-established attraction in the early decades of the 20th century. Cawston had started out, in the mid 1880s, with 50 ostriches imported from Africa. By the second decade of the new century, more than 1000 birds roamed the grounds. Visitors, most of whom had never seen a live ostrich, paid to gawk at and feed the awkward birds, while farm hands entertained the crowds by riding the exotic creatures bare-back . The Cawston farm was also well known in the fashion industry for its prize-wining ostrich feathers, then in high demand for women’s hats and feather boas. Plucked once every nine months and dyed a rainbow of alluring colors, Cawston’s feathers achieved international fame when they won first prize at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900.
Beyond the farm’s usual attractions, however, the 1901 ad featured an extra enticement—a giant, concentrating solar motor, “the only machine of its kind in the world in daily operation,” according to the handbill, on display for no extra charge. Like the Parisians who’d marveled at solar pioneer Augustin Mouchot’s industrious sun machine at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878, the crowds that flocked to Cawston’s ostrich farm were astonished by the contraption on display—an 8300-pound monstrosity that, similar to Mouchot’s motor, featured a conical reflector consisting of more than 1700 mirrors focusing sunlight onto a long cylindrical boiler at its center. Even Mouchot, though, would have marveled at the new motor’s towering size. The mirrored cone had more than 700 feet of surface and measured 35 feet across at its wide end, easily doubling the reflecting capacity of Mouchot’s largest machine. The apparatus was hitched to a track running the length of a vertical, lightweight steel tower that allowed a clock mechanism to keep the mirror angled toward the sun throughout the day. What was most astonishing for inhabitants of arid southern California, though, was that the motor, running on nothing more than sunbeams, pumped more than 1400 gallons of water per minute, transforming the normally dry, dusty farm into a lush garden overflowing with colorful, fragrant flowers. Drawing newspaper reporters from across the country, the device achieved national fame, including being featured on collectable cards inside packs of Wills’s Cigarettes.
The celebrated solar machine was the work of Aubrey Eneas, like Cawston a native Englishman who’d relocated to the United States to seek his fortune. An inventor and engineer based in Boston, Eneas drew inspiration from the work of fellow immigrant John Ericsson, the famous Swiss-born engineer whose design for the ironclad steam-powered battleship The Monitor was widely credited for swinging the tide of the American Civil War to the Union side. Like Mouchot, Ericsson believed that the industrial revolution would soon founder for lack of coal, and also like his French contemporary saw solar power as an intriguing, more sustainable alternative. Although Ericsson’s experiments with solar motors powered by both steam and hot air never advanced beyond the prototype stage, his efforts sparked the imaginations of other American inventors, including Aubrey Eneas, who founded the Solar Motor Company of Boston in 1892. From his base in the coal-rich east, Eneas saw opportunity in the arid deserts of the American southwest, where a growing need for steam-powered irrigation and lack of easily accessible (and therefore cheap) coal presented a seemingly ripe opportunity for solar power. After experimenting briefly with an Ericsson-like device using a parabolic, trough-shaped reflector that had the detriment of heating only one side of the boiler, Eneas adopted Mouchot’s conical reflector design to heat the boiler more evenly and efficiently, producing a greater volume of steam. By chopping off the bottom end of the cone and making the side more upright, Eneas increased the amount of sunlight heating the boiler, raising an average temperature of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit—more than enough, by Eneas’ calculations, to produce steam at industrial levels.
Although the machine Eneas put on display at Cawston’s farm was successful, it was only the first step in an ambitious campaign to entrench solar energy as a leading source of power in the American southwest. Building on his triumph at the farm, in 1903 Eneas relocated the Solar Motor Company from Boston to Los Angeles and began aggressively marketing his machine throughout the region. Before long, Eneas made his first sale, to Arizona rancher Alexander Chandler. A startlingly handsome man with an impressive, Franz-Joseph style sideburns and moustache, Chandler had made his living as a veterinarian, with a thriving practice in Detroit. But from a young age, growing up in Quebec, Canada, Chandler had dreamed of cattle ranching in the mythic American West. When, in 1887, a post for a veterinary surgeon opened in the Arizona territory, Chandler jumped at the opportunity. Pursuing his dream, Chandler soon began buying hundreds of acres of land to establish the Chandler Ranch south of Phoenix. Recognizing that irrigating his land would cost a fortune in imported coal to pump water up from the low-lying Salt River, Chandler was open to alternatives. Eneas’s celebrated solar engine seemed the perfect fit. Although the upfront cost of $2160 was steep at a time when the average yearly family income was around $700, Chandler saw the benefits of a device that, once up and running, would soon pay for itself by obviating the need for expensive coal. As soon as it was installed, in the scorching summer of 1903, the solar engine began to pay off, pumping thousands of gallons onto Chandler’s sun-baked land.
After centuries of unrealized dreams and false starts, it seemed, solar energy’s day had finally come. Until, a week later, when it came crashing down—literally. The great bulk and spacious reflective surface area that made Eneas’s machine so powerful was also its greatest weakness. The massive but delicate device was vulnerable to high winds and other inclement weather, and during a windstorm the part holding the boiler erect gave way, sending the heavy tube crashing down onto the mirrored cone. Smashed into thousands of shiny, jagged pieces, the reflector was damaged beyond repair. Although Chandler was undaunted and had the machine rebuilt, the incident spelled the beginning of the end for Eneas’s solar dreams. The few other machines he sold met similar fates—one destroyed by a “dust devil” (a mini-tornado common in Arizona), the other by a hailstorm. His reputation ruined by the weather-related disasters and unable to secure more funding from his East Coast backers, Eneas left the solar power business and dropped out of the history of solar energy.