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  • Chris Vera Zelada

Meeting Maria Telkes, Solar Pioneer

By Chris Vera Zelada

Special to the Enterprise

Image credit is New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer, obtained from Wikimedia Commons.


Maria Telkes was born in Austria-Hungary on December 12, 1900. Two of her most notable inventions were solar distillers and the first solar powered heating systems. Prior to her inventions Maria went to the University of Budapest where she studied physical chemistry and graduated with her bachelors in 1920. A few years later, Telkes became an instructor at the same university, where she worked until her immigration to the United States.


A decade after arriving in the Americas, Telkes became a citizen and started developing her

solar energy ideas. Her first big job in the U.S. was as a research engineer at

Westinghouse Electric, where she took her first big step in solar engineering. Two years later after working for Westinghouse, Maria began her first push into solar energy research in 1939. During WWII Maria was selected to be a part of the U.S Office of Scientific Research and Development where she invented her famous solar distiller.


Many say that the invention of the solar distiller saved the lives of many soldiers during WWII as the solar distiller was able to transform sea water into drinkable water. However, after finishing her work with the U.S Office of Scientific Research Telkes was not done with her research and engineering. Maria Telkes went on to invent the first solar powered heating system. The solar powered heating systems work by capturing solar radiation from the sun which heats up a double-sided glass that has one large piece of black metal. The hot air in this compartment would then be blown against the walls of the glass which created energy, stored by Glauber’s salt, and saved for later. Her invention caught the eye of other major companies, like the Ford Foundation, which gave Maria a grant of $45,000 to create a solar oven. Some other creations Telkes was able to make with her solar power heating systems were solar stoves, solar heaters, and perhaps her biggest creation, alongside the U.S Department of energy, was the first solar-electric residence.


By the end of her career Maria Telkes got the recognition she deserved. In 1952, she was the first ever recipient of an achievement award from the Society of Women Engineers. In 1977, Telkes was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the National Academy of Science Building Research Advisory Board and her final award was the Charles Greeley Abbot award from the American Solar Energy Society.


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