Since the beginning of human civilization, people have used the natural energy produced by the sun (a staggering 38,460 septillion watts per second) to grow crops to cook food. However, as technology has continued to evolve, so too have the ways in which we are able to harness and store solar energy for even more specialized purposes.
National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Mária Telkes devoted her professional life to this undertaking, and in the process invented some of the world’s first solar heating systems, solar ovens and even a solar-powered water distilling system.
Read below to discover how her contributions to the field of solar energy earned Telkes the nickname “The Sun Queen.”
Early Life and Career
Telkes was born in Budapest, Hungary, on Dec. 12, 1900. She developed an early interest in science and studied physical chemistry at the University of Budapest, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1920 and a doctorate in 1924. She emigrated to the United States one year later to begin working at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation as a biophysicist.
In 1937, Telkes started working at Westinghouse Electric as a research engineer. Her work here represented her first venture into solar technology, as she developed devices that converted heat energy into electrical energy. In 1940, she joined the Solar Energy Conversion Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and began focusing on advancing the practical uses and applications of solar energy.
The Dover Sun House
Constructed for about $20,000 in 1948 with funding from Boston sculptor Amelia Peabody, one of Telkes’ major accomplishments was helping to develop and build the Dover Sun House: “the only existing house heated solely with solar energy.”
Exhibited at an MIT symposium titled “Space Heating with Solar Energy” in August 1950, the Dover House was wedge shaped and had 18 windows lining the south-facing wall along the second story. Directly behind these windows, Telkes built metal and glass panels designed to transfer the heat from the sun through a duct into storage bins containing a collective 21 tons of Glauber’s salt.
With its ability to store heat at an impressive seven times the efficiency of water, on sunny days, the salt would melt and absorb heat, thereby cooling the house during warm weather. During cold days, the salt would cool down and recrystallize, exerting its stored heat.
While this experimental house was considered an incredible success by those in attendance, Telkes cautioned attendees not to view the Dover House as a perfect solution, explaining “no one house could be successfully set down in another locality where climate, surroundings and family demands would be different.”
The Dover House was able to regulate its temperature for two and a half winters. The experiment ended because the continuous melting and cooling of Glauber salt prevented the substance from mixing properly, causing the house’s heating system to fail.
“The problem of the sun-heated house cannot be solved by one or two experimental houses,” Telkes reportedly said at the symposium. “But each new house is another experimental stepping stone toward the use of the sun as a fuel resource.”
A Lasting Legacy
During World War II, Telkes developed a solar distillation device included inside the U.S. military’s emergency medical kits. Designed to be used by downed airmen and sailors, this portable device gave soldiers the ability to remove salt from seawater through vaporization. Once the water was cooled, soldiers had access to safe, potable drinking water.
This same technology was later scaled up and redesigned to meet the water needs of the Virgin Islands, and it remains in use to this day.
Over the course of her impressive career, Telkes earned seven patents for different methods of heating and cooling technologies, as well as the storage of heat.
The many honors and awards she earned in her lifetime include the Society of Women Engineers’ Achievement Award and the Charles Greely Abbot Award from the International Solar Energy Society.
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