For every small step we take towards responsible living—buying eco-friendly light bulbs, and so on—there are gadgets that help us make giant leaps in our quest for sustainability. This week in our Green Tech series, we check out those little panels that do big things: solar cells.

The Best of Green Tech: Solar CellsS

Any kid who has ever tried to explode ants with a well-placed magnifying glass has a basic understanding of the mechanics behind solar cells (and, probably a need for some good kiddie therapy...but that's another story). Basically, as long as we've been basking in the light of Earth's yellow sun, we have been trying to find a way to harness its power. Archimedes supposedly defended Greece from Rome by using mirrors to focus light upon the Roman fleet's sails, causing them to burn and the boats to retreat. And certain Native American tribes used passive solar power to heat their homes—by building into the sides of cliffs or hills, they were able to store heat during the day and release it at night. However, it wasn't until 1883 with the invention of the solar cell that solar energy storage began to resemble its modern incarnation: the solar panel. Here are some of our favorite innovations, served to you sunny-side up!

Sunny With a Chance of Bad Politics

The Best of Green Tech: Solar CellsS

For a while it seemed as if the 20th century would be the golden era (pun intended) of solar technology. From homes, to cars, to toys, the sun spread its rays wide as people experimented with a number of applications of solar power. Here is a stunning gallery from Life that includes an utterly otherworldly shot of a '50s "solar furnace" built on top of a 17th-century French fortress. Around the same time, the Eames brothers were designing the very practical and aptly named "Do Nothing Machine." This solar paneled whirlygig served no other function than to spin whimsically in the sun. And so it seemed like the solar panel's future was bright. That is, until the '80s when Reagan came in to the White House like a rain cloud, and tried to kill everyone's vitamin D buzz by tearing down the panels installed by the Carter administration.

Apparently, Solar Is the New Black

The Best of Green Tech: Solar CellsS

Leave it to the sun to, well, power everything, including remote controls, keyboards, and toothbrushes. They can even inspire the clothes we wear. Oregon's SolarWorld, the country's largest solar energy manufacturing plant donated a mess of black solar panels to designers who showed at Portland's Fashion Week, including Project Runway winner Seth Aaron Henderson, whose line would make Lady Gaga herself burn with envy. As for the future of solar tech, this company has invented a spray paint that can turn any window into a solar panel, Glaswegians considered floating "solar lily pads" down the River Clyde, and this Swiss guy thinks your dog should make itself useful by charging your cell phone on its afternoon jaunt.

That's it for our Best in Green Tech Series! Continued research in sustainable technology is the only way we can responsibly move into the next decade. GE has become a leader in developing and funding projects that help actualize a green future—so GE and its venture capital partners have made a $200 million commitment to invest in the best ideas to develop and deploy digital energy technologies. Head to the GE ecomagination challenge to check out the next great green ideas!