A pioneer of the use of solar energy, Maria Telkes, is often referred to as the “Sun Queen” and the ‘Mother of the Solar Home.” Born in Hungary in 1900 she immigrated to the United States in 1925 and became an American citizen in 1937, the same year she began working at Westinghouse Electric. Her first work in solar energy began as part of the solar energy conservation project at MIT in 1939, where she worked on thermo electrical devices powered by sunlight.
During World War II she was assigned to the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development where she developed a solar salt-water still for the Navy which saved the lives of torpedoed sailors and downed airmen. This system was later redesigned to help meet the water needs of the Virgin Islands and a modified version is still in use today.
Telkes also worked to improve solar stoves and heaters and was awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1953 to create a universal solar oven that could be used globally. She also worked to develop materials for use in the extreme environments of space.
Working with architect Eleanor Raymond, Telkes designed and constructed the first modern home heated with solar energy located in Dover, Massachusetts in 1948. The house collected heat from the sun and used a chemical process to store the heat that was then radiated back into the home to keep a constant temperature.
Awarded the first Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award in 1952, Telkes was also presented the Charles Greeley Abbott Award in 1977 from the American Solar Energy Society.
Even though she official retired in 1977, in 1980 Telkes worked with the U.S. Department of Energy to build the world’s first solar-electric residence in Carlisle, Massachusetts. She continued to consult with many solar start-up companies until a few years before her death in 1995. Telkes held seven patents in the United States for various methods for storage of heat, heating technologies, as well as cooling technologies. Due to her many contributions to solar technologies Maria Telkes was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012.
Written by Angela Goad