Mária Telkes

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Mária Telkes
Budapest, Hungary
Death date
Associated organizations
Westinghouse Electric Corporation, MIT
Fields of study
Solar energy
Charles Greely Abbot Award from the International Solar Energy Society


Known as the "Sun Queen," Mária Telkes, Ph.D. was a Hungarian-American scientist and pioneer in solar thermal storage systems. Born in Budapest, Hungary on December 12, 1900, Dr. Telkes earned bachelor and doctoral degrees in physical chemistry from the University of Budapest. She immigrated to the United States in 1925 and began her career as biophysicist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Working with Dr. George Crile, they developed a photoelectric mechanism able to record brain waves.

After becoming an American citizen in 1937, Dr. Telkes joined Westinghouse Electric as a research engineer, converting heat energy into electric energy. In 1940 she joined MIT's Solar Energy Conservation Project, leading to her life-long quest to develop innovative new processes for capturing and deploying solar energy. Using her knowledge of physical chemistry, she developed a process for storing solar-generated energy through the crystallization of sodium sulfate solution. This chemical process was used to heat MIT's Dover House. Designed by Dr. Telkes and female architect Eleanor Raymond, the house was constructed in Dover, Massachusettes in 1948 and heated exclusively via solar power for two and a half years.

During the 1940s, Dr. Telkes also began work on a solar oven for individual use. Her intent, she said, was to make it possible for anyone, including children, to safely cook any type of cuisine without having to depend on access to fuels. An additional benefit of the solar oven was its usefulness in quickly drying many types of harvested crops. During this time Dr. Telkes also invented a solar distillation device, which was incorporated by the U.S. military into World War II era emergency medical kits.

In 1953, Dr. Telkes established a laboratory at the New York University College of Engineering dedicated to solar energy research. Working at Curtiss-Wright Corporation from 1958-1963, she developed thermal storage materials for shipping temperature-sensitive instruments, technology which was used to support the Polaris, Minuteman, and Apollo programs. She became head of the solar energy lab at MELPAR Company in 1963, returning to research on water distillation using solar technology. She became a researcher at the University of Delaware's Institute of Energy Conversion in 1969, where she remained until her retirement in 1978. She continued to work as a consultant until shortly before her death on December 2, 1995 in her native Budapest, where she had just returned for her first visit in nearly 70 years.

A prolific researcher, Dr. Telkes held 20 patents during her career. In 1952 she became the first recipient of the Society of Women Engineer's Achievement Award, and maintained a connection with the Society throughout her career. In 1977 she was honored with the Charles Greely Abbot Award from the International Solar Energy Society. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012 in recognition of her significant contributions "to the nation's welfare and the advancement of science."

Further Reading

Homsher, Betsy. (2012) Mária Telkes inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame. SWE 58(4), 16-18. http://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/swe/conference12/index.php?startid=16

Lemelson-MIT Program. (n.d.) Maria Telkes - Telkes Solar Cooker. http://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/maria-telkes

Saxon, Wolfgang. (1996, August 13). Maria Telkes, 95, an innovator Of varied uses for solar power. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/13/us/maria-telkes-95-an-innovator-of-varied-uses-for-solar-power.html

Sherburne, Morgan (2010, June 22) The house of the day after tomorrow. MIT Technology Review. http://www.technologyreview.com/s/419445/the-house-of-the-day-after-tomorrow/