Maria Theresa Telkes was born on 12 December 1900 in Budapest, Hungary. Her parents were Aladár Telkes (born Aladár Rubin) and Maria Lábán.
Maria Telkes studied physical chemistry at the University of Budapest. She earned her bachelor's degree in 1920 and her doctorate in 1924.
Immigration to the USA
After working as an instructor for about a year, Maria traveled to the United States to visit her uncle, Ernö Ludwig, who was serving as the Hungarian Consul in Cleveland, Ohio. Travel records show that she first arrived in New York City on September 12, 1925 and returned to Hungary at least two times in the following decade; otherwise, she remained in the United States for the rest of her life.
Maria Telkes became a US citizen on December 3, 1937.
Soon after her arrival in America, Maria Telkes got a job as a biophysicist with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She worked closely with George Washington Crele to develop a photoelectric device for recording brain waves. Their findings were published in a book called Phenomenon of Life.
In 1937, Maria was recruited by Westinghouse Electric to study the conversion of heat energy into electrical energy. Two years later, she joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Solar Energy Conversion Project to design an entire house run on solar energy. Dover Sun House, built in Dover, Massachusetts in collaboration with architect Eleanor Raymond and sculptor Amelia Peabody, was completed in 1948.
In 1953, Maria moved to New York University's College of Engineering and headed a project to design solar ovens that could be used to cook food without the aid of fossil fuels or electricity. This research was sponsored through a $45,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Five years later, the Curtiss-Wright Company invited her to head its solar energy laboratory.
From 1961 to 1963, Maria worked on developing materials that could be used to protect instruments and cargo in undersea exploration and outer space. In 1969, she joined the University of Delaware's faculty, where she remained associated until her retirement.
Maria Telkes is best known for inventing the first successful solar sill to convert sea water into clean, drinkable fresh water. It was small enough to be used on life rafts by people waiting to be rescued at sea, saving countless American lives during World War II. Later, her invention was upscaled to provide large supplies of fresh water to places that didn't have a natural supply, such as the U.S. Virgin Islands. For her work, she received the OSRD Certificate of Merit in 1945.
Other notable inventions include the thermoelectric power generator, which was used to power the Dover Sun House, and the first thermoelectric refrigerator.
Maria Telkes holds over 20 U.S. patents for solar technology. These include:
US 2595905 A - Radiant energy heat transfer device - filed August 29, 1946; published May 6, 1952
US 2677664 A - Composition of matter for the storage of heat - filed February 19, 1951; published May 4, 1954
US 2677367 A - Heat storage unit - filed April 25, 1951; published May 4, 1954
US 2677243 A - Method and apparatus for the storage of heat - filed August 28, 1952; published May 4, 1954
US 2808494 A - Apparatus for storing and releasing heat - filed April 22, 1952;, published October 1, 1957
Maria Telkes retired from active research in 1978. She lived in Texas for a time, consulting with several start-up solar companies there, before moving to her final residence in Miami, Florida.
Just before her 95th birthday, Maria Telkes made one last trip to her birthplace in Budapest, Hungary, and died there on December 2, 1995.
↑ "New York, New York Passenger and Crew Lists, 1909, 1925-1957," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KX9H-Z9T : 2 October 2015), Marie Telkes, 1925; citing Immigration, New York, New York, United States, NARA microfilm publication T715 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
↑ "New York, New York Passenger and Crew Lists, 1909, 1925-1957," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:24XD-CL8 : 2 October 2015), Marie Telkes, 1928; citing Immigration, New York, New York, United States, NARA microfilm publication T715 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
↑ "New York, Northern Arrival Manifests, 1902-1956," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QV9W-659L : 20 May 2016), Maria Telkes, 1931; citing NARA microfilm publication M1480 and M1482 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); roll 145, FHL microfilm 1,283,817.
↑ "U.S. Naturalization Records Indexes, 1794-1995", database with images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 29 August 2016), Maria Theresa Telkes, citing petition no. 60160 in Cleveland, Ohio. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Index Cards to Naturalization Petitions for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, Cleveland, 1855-1967; Microfilm Serial: M1893; Microfilm Roll: 30
↑ "United States National Register of Scientific and Technical Personnel Files, 1954-1970," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KLW3-TKB : 12 December 2014), Maria Telkes, New York, United States, Sep 1954; citing 1954 National Register of Scientific and Technical Personnel, 622629, National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
↑ "United States Public Records, 1970-2009," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KLFB-BST : 22 May 2014), Maria T Dr Telkes, Residence, North Miami, Florida, United States; a third party aggregator of publicly available information.
↑ "United States Social Security Death Index," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:J29Q-J43 : 19 May 2014), Maria T Telkes, 15 Dec 1995; citing U.S. Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing).