Telkes, Maria

views updated

Maria Telkes

Known as the "Sun Queen" for her contributions to solar energy research, Hungarian-born American scientist Maria Telkes (1900–1995) was one of the first to research practical ways for people to use solar energy. She spent much of her life researching solar energy and designed many solar-powered ovens, stills, and generators. She designed the heating system in the first solar-heated home and won numerous awards and honors, including the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award in 1952 and the Charles Greely Abbot Award from the American Section of the International Solar Energy Society.

Telkes was born in Budapest, Hungary, on December 12, 1900, the daughter of Aladar and Maria Laban de Telkes. She grew up in Budapest and attended high school and college there. She studied physical chemistry at Budapest University, where she earned a B.A. degree in 1920, and she earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1924. She began her career as an instructor at the University of Budapest.

Began Research on Energy

In 1925, Telkes came to the United States to visit a relative who was the Hungarian consul in Cleveland, Ohio. While in the United States, she was offered a job as a biophysicist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation to investigate the energy produced by living organisms. She accepted the job and worked there for twelve years under the leadership of scientist George Crile. She and Crile invented a photoelectric mechanism that could record brain waves, and she and Crile also collaborated to write a book, Phenomenon of Life, which reported on their findings. Telkes also undertook research to examine the source of this energy, what happens to it when a cell dies, and what changes occur in the energy when a normal cell becomes a cancer cell.

Telkes became an American citizen in 1937. In that same year, she finished her research at the Cleveland Clinic and went to work at Westinghouse Electric as a research engineer. For the next two years, she conducted research and received patents on new thermoelectric devices; these devices converted heat energy into electrical energy.

Designed Several New Solar Projects

Telkes had been interested in solar energy since she was in high school, and in 1939, she joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Solar Energy Conversion Project. There, she continued to do research on thermoelectric conversion devices, only in these devices, the heat energy came from the sun.

During World War II, the United States government, noting Telkes's expertise, recruited her to serve as a civilian advisor to the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). They asked her to devise a portable method of converting salt water into clean drinking water. In the past, the salt water had to be heated until it turned to steam, leaving the salt behind, and then the steam was condensed back into pure water. Telkes designed a solar still, which used the heat of the sun to vaporize the salt water. The still was small enough that it could be used on life rafts to provide drinking water to people waiting for rescue at sea, and it saved the lives of many torpedoed sailors and downed airmen during World War II. The still was also able to be enlarged enough to provide large supplies of fresh water. This system was put into place in the Virgin Islands, which did not have a large, reliable supply of fresh water. For her invention, Telkes received the OSRD Certificate of Merit in 1945.

In 1948, Telkes researched and designed a new solar heating system, which was installed in a solar house built on the estate of sculptor Amelia Peabody in Dover, Massachusetts; the house was designed by architect Eleanor Raymond. This heating system was different from earlier systems, which had stored the solar energy in the form of hot water or heated rocks. Telkes's system converted solar heat into chemical energy through the crystallization of a solution of sodium sulfate. In her system, sunlight passes through a large glass window to heat air that is trapped behind the glass. The heat from the air is then transferred through a metal sheet and into another air space. From this space, fans move the hot air into storage compartments filled with sodium sulfate; these compartments are located inside the walls of the house, so the walls themselves are the heating element for the home. This system proved to be very efficient and cost-effective, even in the cold Massachusetts winter. In addition, during the hot summer months, the chemical stored in the walls drew heat out of the rooms, making them cooler.

In 1953, Telkes went to the College of Engineering at New York University, where she organized a solar laboratory in the College of Engineering. There, she continued to work on solar stills, heating systems, and solar ovens. Her solar ovens were cheap, simple, and easy to build and were used by poor villagers in nations around the world. They could be used to cook any type of cuisine, were safe for children to use, did not burn or scorch foods, and allowed the cook to do other tasks, since the food did not need to be constantly checked or stirred. Her inventions in this area also led to the discovery of a faster way to dry crops. In 1954, the Ford Foundation gave Telkes a $45,000 grant to develop her solar ovens.

Continued to Invent Solar Devices

In 1958 Telkes began working for the Princeton division of the Curtis-Wright company, where as director of research for the solar energy lab, she researched solar dryers and the possible use of solar thermoelectric generators in outer space. During her time there, she also designed a heating and energy storage system for a laboratory building that Curtis-Wright built in Princeton, New Jersey.

From 1961 to 1963, Telkes worked on developing materials that could be used to protect temperature-sensitive instruments. These materials were also used in shipping and storage containers that would be exposed to extreme temperatures in space and undersea applications for the Apollo and Polaris projects. In 1963, she became head of the solar energy laboratory at the MELPAR Company, and again considered the problem of obtaining fresh water from sea-water.

In 1969, she joined the Institute of Energy Conversion at the University of Delaware, where she developed materials to store solar energy and designed devices that would transfer heat energy more efficiently. As a result, she received patents in the United States and in other countries for the storage of solar heat. Her methods were used in the construction of an experimental solar-heated building at the University of Denver, known as Solar One.

During the 1970s, Telkes also worked on devising air-conditioning systems that stored nighttime coolness so that it could be used during the heat of the following day. These systems were intended to reduce power demand during times of high heat and to reduce the incidence of power failures and brownouts.

In 1977, Telkes was honored by the National Academy of Science Building Research Advisory Board for her contributions to solar-heated building technology. This put her in the company of innovators such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, who had also received the award. She was named professor emeritus at the University of Delaware in 1978, when she retired from active research. She continued to work as a consultant until about 1992.

Telkes died on December 2, 1995, while making her first visit to her hometown of Budapest, Hungary, in 70 years.


Almanac of Famous People, 8th edition, Gale Group, 2003.

Notable Scientists from 1900 to the Present, Gale Group, 2001.

Stanley, Autumn, Mothers and Daughters of Invention, Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Zierdt-Warshaw, Linda, editor, American Women in Technology, ABC-CLIO, 2000.


Rocky Mountain News, August 16, 1996.