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This Woman Realized the Sun’s Potential Long Before the Rest of the Country

In 1948, Mária Telkes, the “Sun Queen,” built a house in Dover, Massachusetts. From the outside, it looked something like a regular home, only chopped in half to create a wedge shape, with 18 windows lining the second story of its south side. But hidden behind the windows were panels of glass and metal to trap the sun’s warmth. In the walls were insulated storage bins filled with 21 tons of Glauber’s salt (sodium sulfate decahydrate), a heat-storing chemical used in photography and dyeing processes. Fully functional, with two bedrooms, it was America’s first solar-heated home.

When Mária Telkes read her first book on the future of power, she was a Hungarian teenager, the eldest of eight children born to Aladar Telkes, a well-to-do bank manager, and Mária Laban de Telkes, in 1900. Solar technologies were used only haphazardly in the 1910s, but Telkes was struck by the sun’s potential. By the time of her death, at the age of 95, she would hold 20 patents, most of them for inventions that harnessed solar energy, including her final one, five years before her death, for a device that cooled and stored air in a solar air conditioner.

Telkes attended the University of Budapest, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1920 and a PhD four years later, both in physical chemistry. Though she’d been hired as an instructor at the university after graduation, Telkes decided instead to accept her uncle Ernӧ Ludwig’s invitation to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was working for the Hungarian consulate.

In Cleveland, Telkes found a job in the research laboratory of the Cleveland Biophysical Institute studying the effects of radiation on brain cells. There she devised her first invention, a photoelectric device that recorded brain waves. The work garnered Telkes national attention: according to Éva Vámos, who wrote a profile of the scientist in the 2011 book European Women in Chemistry, Telkes, along with ten society ladies and film and sports stars, was named one of the 11 best-known women in the United States in 1934 by the New York Times.

Mária Telkes in 1956 (New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

Telkes moved to Bostonin 1939 to begin a career as a researcher and professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s new Solar Energy Conversion Project. Her desire to devise a home heating system that relied on clean solar energy instead of fossil fuels, however, was quickly derailed by World War II. Reassigned to the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1941, Telkes put her talents to use developing a portable water desalination kit that would save pilots and sailors stranded in the Pacific Ocean from dying of dehydration. Her patented invention, a collapsible purifier made with a clear plastic film, eventually became part of standard-issue military emergency kits.

When the war ended, Telkes returned to her work in home solar heating at MIT. It was an idea that had gained popularity during the Depression, when many people could not afford the fossil fuels needed to heat their homes during winter. Beginning in 1948, with the model fashioned by Telkes, researchers with the Solar Energy Conversion Project built six separate “sun houses” to test their theories.

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Three women were responsible for Telkes’s sun house in Dover, Massachusetts: Boston “society lady” and sculptor Amelia Peabody, who funded the project, architect Eleanor Raymond, who designed the home, and Telkes herself, who built its heating system. According to Hartley E. Howe, in his 1949 Popular Science article about the home, it cost an estimated $3,000 (around $32,000 in today’s dollars). Telkes’s Glauber’s salt–based heating system could hold enough heat for at least ten consecutive days of bad weather. It was, she believed, about as far north as her invention could be practically used, given the 105 clear, sunny days the Boston area received annually. She installed her relatives the Némethy family to live in the experimental home.

Telkes’s passive solar energy system was nothing like today’s active solar setups, which convert the sun’s energy into electricity using photovoltaic cells made of semiconducting materials inside dark solar panels typically placed on the roofs of buildings. At midcentury, that method was still a pipe dream. “Although considerable research and development work has been carried out with photoelectric cells … not much progress has been achieved in increasing their efficiency as energy converters,” wrote Telkes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1951.

It would turn out that modern photovoltaic cells, first developed by Bell Labs in 1954, weren’t so far off, but Telkes’s solar heating inventions — which included patents for a radiant energy heat transfer device (1946), a heat storage unit (1951), and an apparatus for storing and releasing heat (1952) — remained the most affordable options for providing solar power for decades to come.

Telkes collected a number of awards in her lifetime. The first she received not for science, but for saving the life of a young girl whose house had caught fire on the shore of Lake Erie in 1927. Witnessing a distraught mother running from the flames, pleading for help for her daughter who was trapped inside, Telkes ran into the blaze, brought the girl out, and reunited the family.

In 1952, Telkes became another kind of hero, one whom aspiring female scientists would look up to. A year before transferring from MIT to a position at New York University, she became the first recipient of the new Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award. With the accolade in hand, she began a new project at NYU with a grant from the Ford Foundation, developing a cooking oven that relied on solar energy instead of dirty, costly fuel. Inexpensive and easy to operate, this invention went on to be widely used in midcentury India.

In the 1960s, Telkes, apparently needing a break from academia, moved to the corporate world to design insulation packaging for products, but the work didn’t hold her interest for long. In the 1970s she was back to developing new technologies for making solar homes more practical, this time at the University of Delaware.

Unusual for a woman of the time, even a successful academic and scientist, Telkes never married and never had children. During her seven decades in the United States, she returned only once to Hungary, where her nuclear family remained — at the age of 95. During her visit, she passed away.

Telkes was lauded in the United States. In 1977 alone, she earned a prestigious lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Sciences Building Research Advisory Board and the Charles Greeley Abbot Award from the American Solar Energy Society. But in Hungary she was virtually unknown. It would take nearly nine months for news of her death to reach her adopted country. After a 70-year career of groundbreaking scientific work, the Sun Queen’s light had gone out.

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Written by How Africa

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