solar energy was a respectable scientist and inventor. But while her ingenious invention of a solar distiller saved many soldiers’ lives during the World War II era, the American-Hungarian biophysicist was unceremoniously fired from the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Google honoring Telkes on her 122nd birthday with a Doodle has brought her story back into the mainstream.
Born in Hungary, Telkes migrated to the US as a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1925. She worked at MIT between 1939 and 1953 when she was fired after a report blamed her for the failings of a solar energy harnessing project.
It was her rivalry with another MIT professor called Hoyt Hottel that led to her exit. In 1938, Hotel was appointed as chairman of MIT’s new Solar Energy Committee. While Telkes joined a year later, WWII forced the team to direct their attention to contribute to war-time efforts.
After the war, she became an associate professor at MIT and worked on Hottel’s team on the Solar II project which was an effort towards making a model home heated by solar energy. Telkes advocated a material called Glauber’s salts to replace water to enhance the efficiency of heat storage. The hotel found it promising and the Solar II project adopted Telkes’ method.
However, what she had worked out, in theory, did not culminate in reality as the material showed a tendency to stratify and resulted in leaks in the system. But this was not all. There was growing friction between the colleagues and Hottel did not like Telkes’ strong opinions and also her media-savvy personality. Telkes was blamed for the failure of the project in a review by the MIT Dean in 1953 which led to her unceremonious exit.
However, Telkes was undeterred from the firing and continued her pursuit of harnessing solar energy and earned her place in history.