The Historical Timeline
If you remember from you school days, the people in the ancient times used to burn wood, leaves, trees etc to get heat and light (they still do it now). All these materials need solar energy for their growth and sustenance hence in a way we have been using solar energy since times immemorial. But even a more direct use is quite backdated and people used to use magnifying glasses to focus the energy of the sun at a point even in the 7th Century B.C. and till the 3rd century B.C. people in Greece and Rome used this technique for lighting up fires for religious purposes.
The great scientist Archimedes (eureka fame) used this technique for military purposes and help destroy wooden enemy ships by overheating them to a degree of combustion through use of mirrors from a distance, though some scholars suggest that there is not much evidence in favour of this feat.
This trend continued for centuries and houses were constructed in such a manner that they trapped sunlight by using mirrors so that they remained warm during very cold seasons.
The modern day solar effects or the photovoltaic effect, which is normally associate with the current day solar technology started somewhere in the 4th decade of the 19th century when a French scientist by the name of Edmond discovered the photovoltaic effect wherein some materials generate electricity as a result of absorbing electromagnetic radiation found in the sunlight, followed by several advances such as the discovery of the Hertz effect in 1887.
Yet it was not until 1954 that the first silicon photovoltaic cell actually capable of running a household appliance was devised in the Bell Labs by a team consisting of Daryl Chaplin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson.
Of course this is a very brief description and there are hundreds of events in the solar energy development timeline which would require a long series of articles for full description. Yet this should give you a fairly good idea about the developments in the solar energy arena since prehistoric times to the current times when we have sophisticated solar based power equipments as described in several other articles which you can read in the renewable energy section. You can also see the image of a modern day solar powered car below.