Google Doodle honors Mária Telkes, ‘The Sun Queen’ of solar energy

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Google has replaced their homepage logo with an animated Doodle in honor of prolific solar energy scientist Mária Telkes, nicknamed “The Sun Queen.”

Mária Telkes was born in Budapest, Hungary on December 12, 1900, and she received a thorough education in the sciences, including a PhD from the University of Budapest in 1924. Later that year, Telkes visited a relative in the United States and decided to immigrate there soon after.

In the early years of Mária Telkes’ career, she researched biophysics and particularly the energy created by living things. Before long, her interests shifted toward finding ways to convert heat into energy, and ultimately, in 1939, joined the newly formed MIT research group focused on solar energy.

Amidst World War II, the U.S. government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development hired Mária Telkes’ for her expertise in solar energy and innovative ideas for the blossoming technology. One of her most famous inventions was developed during this period, a solar-powered distiller which is able to clean water for use in medical procedures or make seawater drinkable for soldiers lost at sea.

Continuing her work with MIT, Telkes participated in a project to use solar energy to keep a house warm during the bitterly cold winter in Massachusetts. Her initial experiment with solar powered heating ended in failure, and it led to Mária Telkes being removed from MIT’s solar energy team. However, she did not let this setback end her career or stop her from solving this particular problem.

In 1948, in conjunction with architect Eleanor Raymond and with funding from philanthropist Amelia Peabody, Mária Telkes designed a system that channeled the heat of sunlight into a special material between the walls, Glauber’s salt, that absorbed the energy. As the salt cooled, it would release the stored energy as heat, keeping the house (referred to as the Dover Sun House) warm.

After Telkes was let go by MIT in 1953, she continued her solar energy research at New York University College of Engineering. There, she was given a grant from the Ford Foundation to create an oven that works on solar energy. The intention was to create something that could reach 350°F and be usable by those who do not have the traditional needs of an oven available to them.

The resulting solar oven was extremely effective, and was even safe enough for children to learn to cook with it. Telkes even adapted the solar oven design to be used by farmers to dry their crops. Given the oven’s affordability and ease of use in remote locations, Telkes’ solar oven design is still in use to this day.

All of these innovations (and many more) in solar energy earned Mária Telkes the nickname “The Sun Queen.” As for why Google chose today to honor the acclaimed scientist, on December 12, 1952 — 70 years ago today — Mária Telkes was chosen as the first ever recipient of the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award. Additionally, today would have been Telkes’ 122nd birthday.

The animated Google Doodle being showcased today prominently features some of Mária Telkes’ inventions like the solar distiller, solar oven, and the Dover Sun House. The Doodle artwork shifts between the warm colors of daytime and the cool shades of the evening, representing the collection of solar energy during the day to be used through the cold nights.

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