The Sun Queen

It is the things supposed to be impossible that interest me. I like to do things they say cannot be done.

— Mária Telkes

Aladar Telkes and Maria Laban de Telkes welcomed a daughter to the world on 12 December 1900 in Budapest, at the time part of Austria-Hungary. The Telkes did not possess royal blood, but, by the time their child had finished a monumental scientific career, the world referred to Mária Telkes as “The Sun Queen.”

After graduating high school in Budapest, Telkes became a rarity for the time, as her talents allowed her to continue to university. At Eötvös Loránd University, she studied physical chemistry, garnering a bachelor’s degree in 1920 and a doctorate in 1924. After evolving into Dr. Telkes, she initially started teaching at the university, before a trip to the United States altered the course of her life.

In 1924, Telkes visited a relative in Cleveland, who served as a Hungarian consul. Something about the United States beckoned Telkes, so she decided to immigrate. A year later, she started working at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, which tasked her with researching how living organisms produce energy. This nexus of a new home and a new focus pushed Telkes down a revolutionary road.

Mária Telkes in 1956 - photo from Library of Congress

At the Cleveland Clinic, Telkes worked with George Washington Crile – recognized as the first surgeon to successfully transfuse blood directly – to invent a photoelectric device that recorded brain waves. Together, they published a book about their instrument and what they discovered because of it, called Phenomenon of Life.

In the 1930s, Westinghouse recruited Telkes to develop alloys for thermocouples to convert heat into electricity. In 1939, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened a new program dedicated to solar energy. Telkes wrote the program, asking to join its ranks. She started in Boston on the brink of World War II.

During the conflict, the government coaxed Telkes to join the Office of Scientific Research and Development, as a civilian advisor. The goal was a solar-powered desalination apparatus. Clean water during war is a difficult prospect. In the Pacific Theater, the ability to procure fresh water on islands was a particularly arduous task. In 1942, Telkes delivered a prototype of the machine, which distilled water thanks to the sun’s power. Internal wrangling with manufacturers delayed the full-fledged usage of the device until after the completion of the War, though it did help resolve a water crisis in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Diagram of Telkes' solar still

After the war, Telkes continued to dabble in the sunlight. Her attention turned toward harnessing solar power for heating houses. Recognizing the crux of the field lay in heat storage – it still does today – she applied one of her areas of expertise to the problem: phase-change materials. These compounds either absorb or release heat as they alter from solid to liquid or vice versa. Telkes realized these sorts of materials could essentially become solar-powered batteries. 

In 1946, Telkes and the MIT solar group built a house, which was heated by a compound called Glauber’s salt. Despite support from the university president and the group founder, when snags appeared with the salt batteries, the chairman of the MIT solar energy fund blamed Telkes and scuttled the experimental house.

Undaunted, Telkes continued her research on the topic. Two years later, sculptor and philanthropist Amelia Peabody funded Telkes and architect Eleanor Raymond to create the world’s first contemporary home heated by solar power. The result was the Dover Sun House.

The Dover Sun House - Yale University

To heat the house, Telkes devised a system whereby light passed through glass windows, heating the air inside, which then heated a metal sheet that extended into another pocket of air, which was then distributed by fans across vats of Glauber’s salt – also called miraculous salt – which sat between walls. When the salt cooled, it released heat. Popular Science decreed the breakthrough at the Sun Dover House as potentially more important scientifically than the atomic bomb.

For several years, they appeared to be correct. However, like Telkes herself, the technology was a bit ahead of its time. The salt on its own did not behave as a heater on long scales. Eventually, the owners of the house replaced the solar system with a furnace. However, based on the state of science today, Popular Science might have been correct back in 1949. Solar power and battery storage are the future; the nuclear fission of the atomic bomb is the past, while nuclear fusion – the magic used by the sun – is the tomorrow.

Despite the ultimate shuttering of the solar system in the Dover Sun House, Telkes kept cooking. In 1953, she received a grant from the Ford Foundation to create solar-powered ovens, mainly for impoverished areas of the world. In the 1960s, she transitioned to the space age, working on materials that could endure the extreme hots and colds of radiation or the lack thereof in the cosmos. Some of her materials made it to the Apollo missions. Coming full circle, in the 1980s she aided the U.S. Department of Energy to produce the first fully solar-powered home, called the Carlisle House.

Telkes at MIT

Her lifetime of achievement earned her a slew of honors. She received the OSRD Certificate of Merit in 1945 for the solar still; the first Society of Women Engineers award went to her in 1952; In 1977, she nabbed both the Charles Greeley Abbot Award from the American Solar Energy Society and a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Sciences Building Research Advisory Board.

Unfortunately, Telkes died on 2 December 1995, 10 days shy of her 95th birthday, before she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012. Despite missing this capstone triumph while living, she became known worldwide as The Sun Queen and is still considered one of the most important forebearers of the solar power sciences.

These seminal additions to the technology of planet Earth easily grant Mária Telkes entry into the Hallowed Halls of Woman Crush Wednesday at The Mountains Are Calling!

Telkes at the Dover Sun House - Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Further Reading and Exploration

Maria Telkes – National Inventors Hall of Fame

How Mária Telkes Became ’The Sun Queen’ – National Inventors Hall of Fame

The Sun Queen and the Skeptic: Building the World’s First Solar Houses – Science History Institute

Mária Telkes: All hail the Sun Queen – International Society for Optics and Photonics

From Our Archives: How To Stash Sunlight – Popular Science

The 1948 Dover Sun House Used Phase Change Materials to Store Heat – TreeHugger

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