Maria Telkes and the Power of the Sun

Mária Telkes (1900 - 1995)

Mária Telkes
(1900 – 1995)

On December 12, 1900, Hungarian–American scientist and inventor Mária Telkes was born. She is best known for her work in solar energy technology.

Mária Telkes finished her dissertation in the field of physical chemistry in 1924 at the University o Budapest and moved to the united States shortly after. About one year later, Telkes accepted a position as a biophysicist for the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, where she researched on creating a photoelectric device that recorded brain waves. She became a U.S. citizen in 1937 and continued her career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her first advances in the field of solar energy were accomplished around 1939. As part of the Solar Energy Conversion Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Telkes worked on thermoelectric devices powered by sunlight. The scientist was then assigned to the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development and was able to create hone of her biggest inventions there, the solar distiller that was able to vaporize seawater and recondense it into drinkable water, which was especially useful for life rafts during the war. After World War II, Telkes remained at MIT and became associate research professor. [1]

Along with the architect Eleanor Raymond, Telkes managed to develop the first house heated through solar energy by 1948. The „Sun House“ was probably the very first house which realized a passive concept of solar energy. This means that there was no need for additional active elements that produced electricity in order to heat the house. Eleanor Raymond was able to construct the house in a way that it could be heated only by solar energy throughout the entire year. [3] Raymond and Telkes were convinced that by the mid 1970s, the general publics interest in solar energy will increase significantly. Back then, the feedback on her developments were not all positive:

“Everyone said, ‘Oh, poor Maria, she’s just sunstruck.” [2]

However, by 1973, during the oil crisis, the enthusiasm towards solar energy suddenly increased and Mária Telkes received awards from the Society of Women Engineers and the American Solar Energy Society.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture on “The History of Women in Science” by Professor Williams.

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