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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

The Sun Queen

Inspiration can and does come from any and everywhere in our lives, often times unexpectedly. Call it serendipity, fortuity, or whatever you like, the inspiration for this post comes from happenstance when I was flipping through the channels the other day (mid-March for those wondering) when I came across a TV show called American Experience on PBS, whose episode title I took for this post's title. It is our duty as science educators to help enlighten all who wonder, all whom are in our care, or who read these posts and this time, I hope to help enlighten you about a woman whose story must be told more loudly so that everyone knows.

Mária Telkes in 1956 | WikiMedia Commons

So let me introduce you to chemical engineer and inventor Mária Telkes ("Tell-kish"), another female pioneer you've probably never heard of before.

The question I pose to you isn't "Why should I know this woman?", it's "Why don't you know this woman?!" That second question is sadly, more simple to answer: men. But I'll discuss a bit more about that later.

A brilliant woman by all accounts, she sadly had multiple of her endeavors and ideas stifled by her male colleagues and coworkers as she progressed through her scientific career. But by the time her career was over, she would hold over 20 patents and help shape the world of solar energy and solar power for years to come. Now, we help bring her further into the light of modern society so she can FINALLY take her place among all of the outstanding and incredible women who have invented things that modern society can barely function without!

Windshield wipers (Mary Anderson, patented in 1903), Kevlar (Stephanie Kwolek - 1965), treatments for Malaria (Asima Chatterjee - 1944), coffee filters (Melitta Bentz- 1908). Yes, you read that correctly, coffee filters were invented by a woman; thank you Malitta!! Even Wi-Fi has it's roots in the mind of a woman, Hedy Lamar, in WW2! Wi-Fi!! These inventions, by women, are the ones that world cannot live without, sooo... I never want to hear that women are less intelligent, smart, capable or innovative than men, ever.


Mária Telkes (December 12, 1900 – December 2, 1995) was born in Budapest to Aladar and Mária Laban de Telkes; it was her grandfather who would change the name to just "Telkes". Raised in the city, she earned her B.A. in 1920 at a time when women were not expected to be in the laboratory, yet that's exactly where Mária was headed. Completing her Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Geneva in Switzerland in 1924, she would become an instructor in 1924 later that same year. It was only after a family member visited her from the Hungarian consul in Cleveland, that Mária would decide the next part of her scientific journey would be in the United States. So off she went to visit that same relative who worked at Hungarian consul in Cleveland, Ohio and eventually she was hired by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation where she investigated the energy produced by living organisms. There, with the help (and leadership) of George Washington Crile, Telkes would invent a mechanism that could record brain waves! Keep in mind, this is the mid-1930s! Imagine what it must have been like in the darkened lab of Crile's when “brain tissues were made to glow by their own inner light, giving off a strange radiance that shown like a mystic halo,” the Chicago Daily Tribune would report in 1934.

Telkes' journey would then take her to Westinghouse where she worked on something called "thermocouples", a device that allows the changing of heat energy into electricity. This was an idea that would help shape her career and would lead to what some refer to as a "nemesis" in the form of Hoyt Hottel when she was offered a job at MIT in 1939. At first these two brilliant minds worked on using the sun for more than just electricity. They would start on a path of using the sun to heat a building, like a home, but only using the sun. If only there was a way to store the sun's energy and release it in the form of heat. At MIT, Telkes was one of a very few women in engineering and the embryonic solar program therein. Telkes knew that the sun important to energy usage and production saying that the sun "is the greatest untapped energy resource of the world and its utilization should be one of our most important and fruitful projects." It was this work which would lead to the nickname "The Sun Queen".

But Hottel, the leader in the MIT solar work, was less confident in the technology's projects, and often clashed with Godfrey Lowell Cabot (who became obsessed with solar energy in his later years an an industrialist) and Telkes, whom he (Hottel) would eventually push out of MIT. To quote the Science History Institute's website "Yet, paradoxically, he too was a foundational figure in the field. He published seminal research and built some of the world’s first-ever “active” solar houses." Hottel even was part of the very first "Solar house" that MIT would build to help demonstrate the feasibility of this solar-heating method.

But being pushed out of MIT would not stop Telkes, not in the slightest.

She had bigger plans, and didn't care about MIT or Hottel. She was bound and determined to show that you could heat and cool a house using the sun, and not just when the sun was out. But how? How can you capture AND STORE the sun's energy to be released when and as you needed it? The answer? Salt. Specifically Mirabilite, otherwise known as Glauber's salt (Sodium Sulfate). For now it was time to put this Glauber's salt to the ultimate test, with the Dover Sun House, illustrated below.

Dover Sun House illustration | Courtesy

Working with American architect Eleanor Raymond (another woman I feel you should know more about), they designed the Dover Sun House, in Dover Massachusetts (16 miles from and in the "backyard" of MIT). The house, as you see, had 10-foot solar panels running the length of the house while the family would live below. Yes, Telkes' big experiment would see human beings living in this house! But why Sodium Sulfate? It has to do with changing phases (a la liquid to gas, and back again). Behind the solar panels high over 4,200 gallons of the salts! Now, depending on the temperature of the salt, it could be melted at a mere 90° F, absorbing the sun's heat. But when it cooled and solidified, that solar energy became locked within the crystals of the salt, which could then be used by the air circulating in the home to heat it! And did so for over two full, harsh New England winters!

Telkes' house would eventually succumb to things that went beyond what might have been "something to think about" in the planning stages. The Glauber's salts became stratified (layered) and unable to fully melt or solidify. While reports of how well the house was heated were very popular and the house was able to be visited by the public, there were details that were left out. Such as the aforementioned stratification of the salts, and there was an electric bill, one needed to run the fans that circulated the air, among other things. Or that the containers with the salts in them corroded and leaked. And, by the third winter Nemethy’s (cousins of Telkes) family ­­was freezing and an oil heating system was installed. Eventually the Dover House experiment ran its course and after 2012, the house was razed. But the idea of heating and cooling a house with the sun was there.

But before you think that this brilliant woman would or did stop there, she did not. The research into solar heating fell by the wayside and nuclear power and cheap, middle east oil became more prominent as more viable methods of heating. Even Hottel would quit trying to build solar houses, but still thought that solar power had its virtues. “We’re kidding the public about the sun. It’s not worth as much as claimed,” he said in a 1985 oral history interview with the Chemical Heritage Foundation (now the Science History Institute). “The cost of doing something using the sun has always been a little higher than if you do it some other way.” Nonetheless, when he died in 1998, the New York Times described him as “a leader in the development of alternative fuels.”

Telkes' solar (salt water) still |

Telkes would remain busy, working at NYU, UPenn and the University of Delaware expanding her research to include a new type of solar technology—electricity-generating photovoltaic cells, the ones we're so familiar with now. But she must be remembered for the solar (water) still which she invented at the start of World War II; it is now standard military issue in their emergency medical kits! This still would allow and service men (at the time) who were lost at sea to have drinking water until they were (hopefully) rescued!

She's also known for her solar stove! While at New York University, she received a Ford Foundation grant to design and develop a solar stove for use in developing countries. Her genius shown through again when she came up with the design below. An insulated metal box with doors at the ends and covered with glass where the food was to be cooked. Costing only four dollars, this oven could heat to 400 degrees and needed not special materials. Especially important was the cost so that it could be readily sold in developing countries, like India (at the time).

Telkes' solar oven |

In 1977, Telkes was recognized as one of the world’s foremost pioneers in the field of solar energy when she was honored with the Charles Greeley Abbot Award granted by the American Section of the International Solar Energy Society. She would continue this inventing "spree" in 1978 when she earned a patent for a solar heater!

Mária Telkes would die in 1995 in Budapest, Hungary at the age 94; 10 days shy of her 95th birthday. With over 20 patents to her name, she's somehow become unknown to the world at large, although well known in the science community. Telkes' work was even recognized in a Google Doodle on December 12, 2022.

While there is still so much I could get into about the incredible mind that was Mária Telkes, I am running out of room, so you have homework now. Here are a list of websites about Mária Telkes for you to peruse at your leisure.

And before I go, I cannot recommend highly enough, the episode from which I took this name and my inspiration. It was an eye-opening moment and a case of serendipity; I consider myself illuminated on a brilliant mind, no longer overlooked.

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