It's why she was called the Sun Queen.
maria telkes at MIT
Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Getty

Maria Telkes' fascination with the power of the sun started as a child in Hungary in the early 1900s and never wavered. The physical chemist and biophysicist dedicated her career to harnessing its energy, inventing the first successful solar-powered heating system, the solar oven and a solar water distilling system for making seawater potable. Telkes sensed the need for alternative forms of power before it became paramount. "Sunlight will be used as a source of energy sooner or later, why wait?" she said as a budding scientist.

Telkes was born in Hungary in 1900. She studied for her BA at the University of Budapest and received a doctorate in physical chemistry from there as well. At the age of 25, already a PhD, she immigrated to the United States. She first worked as biophysicist at Cleveland Clinic Foundation creating a photoelectric device that recorded brain waves. She then moved to Westinghouse Electric where she developed instruments that converted heat into electrical energy. In 1937, she became an American citizen and a few years later she joined the Solar Energy Conversion Project and her professional focus finally became the sun-a subject she was truly passionate about and how she earned her nickname, the Sun Queen.

Soon after, the U.S. military took notice of her expertise in the burgeoning field of solar energy and tapped her for a project that would have a great effect on WWII and the battles waging in the Pacific Ocean. With all the fighting at sea, American soldiers were at risk of being stranded in the heat and humidity for days without fresh water. Telkes developed a small and lightweight device which used the heat of the sun to distil water that was included in all the in emergency medical kits.

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maria telkes with society of women engineers
Dr. Maria Telkes, (left) receiving the Society of Women Engineers' Award for Meritorious Contribution to Engineering.
| Credit: Bettmann/Getty

Also while at MIT, in 1948, Telkes completed the Dover Sun House-probably her most famous project-an experimental home that showcased the power of solar energy and solved the issue of how to store it. It was the first completely solar-heated home, capturing and storing solar energy in salt, then distributing it through the house with fans on cloudy days throughout the winter. Notably, her partners were two women, architect Eleanor Raymond and financier Amelia Peabody. In 1950, Telkes and Raymond were the toast of a forward-thinking symposium held by MIT called "Space Heating with Solar Energy." People, and newspapers, could not stop talking about the Dover House and the fact that it was built by women (they were two of the three females on a 98-person guest list)-you could say it was there moment in the sun.

After the project, Telkes continued her work with solar-heating. In 1953, she was commissioned by the Ford Foundation to create a solar-powered oven that could be used by people living at all latitudes. While inventing this oven, she also developed a faster way for farmers to dry their crops. She later worked to develop materials capable of enduring the extreme temperature in space and worked with the U.S. Department of Energy to build the world's first solar-electric residence in Carlisle, Massachusetts. Even after her retirement, she continued to consult with many solar start-up companies until she passed away at the age of 94.

Over the course of her illustrious career, Telkes received numerous prestigious awards and earned over 20 patents. In 2012, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and has numerous schools named after her across the country. Solar power continues on as the frontrunner in the quest for renewable energy, and Telkes will always be the Sun Queen.


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