December 12

Mária Telkes Photo Credit: Al Ravenna, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Today in Science

The Sun Queen, Mária Telkes, Is Born

Solar energy innovator Mária Telkes, also known as the Sun Queen, was born on this day in 1900 in Budapest, Hungary.

After emigrating to the United States in 1925 to work as a biophysicist, she accepted a position at M.I.T. in 1939, where she conducted research in the fields of metallurgy and solar energy. With their Solar Energy Conversion Project, she and her team of researchers were awarded a grant in 1948 to build a solar house in Dover, Mass. The five-room Dover Sun House was funded by sculptor Amelia Peabody and designed by architect Eleanor Raymond. Telkes supervised the building of the house and designed its heating system, which differed from previous solar houses by relying on chemical processes of crystallization to retain heat and fans to disperse it throughout the building later as needed.

This was but one of Telkes' forays into solar energy research and development. She also developed a solar still for converting sea water into drinking water aboard life rafts during World War II (that could also be upscaled for larger, land-based uses), a solar oven that could be used anywhere in the world (and that led to a better way for farmers to dry their crops), and more advanced forms of solar home heating and cooling using specially developed sodium sulfate salts.

Additionally, she developed a thermoelectric power generator, a thermoelectric refrigerator, and thermal shipping materials for protecting temperature-sensitive instruments used by NASA's Polaris, Minuteman and Apollo programs. By the end of her career, she held 20 patents.

Telkes died in 1995, just days shy of her 95th birthday. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2012.

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