Mária Telkes: One of the World’s Greatest Female Inventors You Need to Know

I agree with Scott Berkun: “A disturbing element of history is its unfairness to women. The majority of our most famous inventors and discoverers are men in large part because women were denied the education and opportunity required to make similar achievements. It’s hard to identify a singular cause but there’s evidence the shift to monotheism changed what had been a more balanced view of gender power, when there was still respect for male and female roles, into masculine centric cultures. Even by the time of the Western Enlightenment, women were still given few opportunities to study, work in pioneering fields or to receive acclaim for their work. This is a subject well beyond the scope of this post.”

Even the ancient Greeks, who were progressive on many fronts, had few female philosophers and scholars, although there were some. Among the better known is Hypatia, but few works from the time survived and it’s hard to know how much influence she had.

Mária Telkes is one of the greatest innovators throughout history. Born December 12, 1900, Budapest, in Austria-Hungary [now in Hungary], she died December 2, 1995, Budapest), Hungarian-born American physical chemist and biophysicist best known for her invention of the solar distiller and the first solar-powered heating system designed for residences. She also invented other devices capable of storing energy captured from sunlight.

Daughter of Aladar Telkes and Maria Laban de Telkes, she was raised in Budapest. She studied physical chemistry at the University of Budapest, graduating with a B.A. in 1920 and a Ph.D. in 1924. She became an instructor at the institution in 1924 but decided to immigrate to the United States after visiting a relative, who served at the time as the Hungarian consul in Cleveland. In 1925 she accepted a position as a biophysicist for the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, where she worked with American surgeon George Washington Crile to create a photoelectric device that recorded brain waves.

Telkes became an American citizen in 1937. That same year she became a research engineer at Westinghouse Electric, where she developed instruments that converted heat into electrical energy; however, she made her first forays into solar energy research in 1939. That year, as part of the Solar Energy Conversion Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she worked on thermoelectric devices powered by sunlight. Telkes was assigned to the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, and it was there that she created one of her most important inventions: a solar distiller capable of vaporizing seawater and recondensing it into drinkable water. Although the system was carried aboard life rafts during the war, it was also scaled up to supplement the water demands of the Virgin Islands. She remained at MIT after the war, becoming an associate research professor in metallurgy in 1945.

In 1947, the Hungarian scientist invented the thermoelectric power generator to provide heat for Dover House, a wedge-shaped structure she conceived with architect Eleanor Raymond. Girl power, indeed! To learn more about her and her work, please click here.

Photo Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Getty Images

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete list.

TakePart is the digital news and lifestyle magazine from Participant Media, the company behind such acclaimed documentaries as CITIZENFOUR, An Inconvenient Truth and Food, Inc. and feature films including Lincoln and Spotlight.

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.