February 3, 2023

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Maria Telkes: Why Google honours her today | Science and Technology News

Telkes was an innovative scientist recognised for her contributions to solar energy technologies.

Hungarian-American scientist Maria Telkes is known for her contributions to solar energy technologies.

Telkes, who died in 1995, invented the solar distiller as well as the first solar-powered heating system designed for residences.

On Monday, Google changed its logo in 12 countries to a doodle, or illustration, in her honour.

This is her story:

Early life

  • Telkes was born on December 12, 1900, in Budapest, Hungary. She was the daughter of Aladar and Maria Laban de Telkes.
  • Capturing energy from the sun was an idea that intrigued the scientist from an early age.
  • “I was only 11 when a simple school experiment, the melting of sulphur, made me intensively curious about chemistry,” Telkes wrote in 1964. “My parents were amused and tolerant, even after a loud but harmless explosion. Avidly reading science books, I was experimenting.”
  • As a freshman at the University of Budapest in Hungary, she once said that reading the book Energy Sources of the Future by Kornel Zelovich was a defining moment in her life.
  • “The book explained that the usual energy sources have geographical limitations, especially in the less developed tropical regions, but the sun is directly overhead in the tropics, and you do not have to explore for it,” she said.
  • The book explained how the United States was experimenting with solar energy, and she knew that was the place to go after obtaining her degree.
  • Telkes later studied at Hungary’s Eotvos Lorand University, where she specialised in physical chemistry and obtained a PhD in 1924.

Journey to the US

  • The next year, Telkes arrived in the US and joined the Cleveland Clinic Foundation as a biophysicist. During her time there, she worked on technology that enabled scientists to record brain waves.
  • She became an American citizen in 1937. During World War II, she was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a member of its solar energy committee.
  • “Dr Godfrey Lowell Cabot was the first to recognise the importance of systematic Solar Energy Conversion,” Telkes wrote. “He created a foundation for this purpose at [MIT]. I joined this group, being one of the relatively few women research associates at MIT for the next 13 years.”
  • Amid the war, Telkes developed a solar-powered water desalination machine, completing a prototype in 1942. Her invention helped US soldiers posted along seas get clear water.
  • MIT also tasked Telkes and her colleagues with creating habitable solar-heated homes. However, her proposed design failed and she was removed from the committee.

‘Impossible things interest me’

  • Despite the setback, Telkes’s research continued. In 1948, at the age of 48, she, in partnership with architect Eleanor Raymond, designed the world’s first modern residence heated with solar energy.
  • “It is the things supposed to be impossible that interest me. I like to do things they say cannot be done,” Telkes said during an interview in 1942.
  • At 53, she received a $45,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to create a universal solar oven.

‘The Sun Queen’

  • In 1972, Telkes also helped build the first house to generate both heat and electricity from the sun. Nine years later, she helped the US government to develop the first fully solar-powered home.
  • She received the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award in 1952. She retired at 77 and received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Sciences Building Research Advisory Board.
  • Telkes also has more than 20 patents to her credit. Her contributions to the solar energy field earned her the nickname the “Sun Queen”.
  • After spending several decades in the US, Telkes returned in 1995 to Hungary, where she passed away 10 days before her 95th birthday.