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This 1940s Solar House Powered Innovation and Women in STEM

As far back as the 1940s, people were worried about running out of fuel. The sun seemed like a feasible alternative

Maria Telkes, known as the "Sun Queen" for her focus on solar energy. (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

Maria Telkes, born on this day in 1900, really believed in the power of the sun to change human lives. Nowhere is that belief more clearly expressed than in the story of the Dover House.

Telkes, who was originally from Budapest, had been working as a biophysicist and engineer in the United States since emigrating from Hungary in 1925. In 1940, she joined the Massachussetts Institute of Technology’s Solar Energy Conversation Project. “Her involvement with this project would put her on a fifty-year path to developing innovative new processes for capturing and deploying solar energy,” writes Lemelson-MIT. During this time, she started working on the Dover House project, which intended to create a house entirely heated by solar power.

In the late 1940s, writes Morgan Sherburne for MIT Technology Review,  scientists were already worrying about running out of fuel. Solar fuel, that unending source of energy, seemed like it might be the way to get around this issue. Telkes and architect Eleanor Raymond, funded by Boston sculptor and conservationist Amelia Peabody, designed what one publication referred to as “the house of the day after tomorrow” to help imagine how a solar future would work. Notably, the three people most responsible for the house were women who were each successful in their field, garnering comment from press, Sherburne writes.

“The wedge-shaped Dover house looked like a typical home chopped in half, a shape designed to help it collect sufficient light. A bank of 18 windows lined the second story of its south-facing wall, which was a story higher than its north-facing wall,” writes Sherburne. Solar panels were in the process of being developed, but Telkes designed a heating system that took energy from the sun in a different way. “Her storage process relied on chemistry,” writes Lemelson-MIT; “she developed a process whereby solar-generated energy could be stored chemically through the crystallization of a sodium sulfate solution.”

Air trapped between panels of glass and metal  “soaked up the sun’s warmth,” writes Sherburne. That warm air was funnelled to storage bins full of sodium sulfate, known as Glauber’s salt after the chemist who discovered it, that were built into the house’s walls. “On sunny days, the salt melted and absorbed heat, cooling the air in hot weather,” she writes. “When the temperature fell, the salt cooled and recrystallized, giving off its stored heat.”

The house worked for more than two years before the chemical reaction that powered the system was exhausted and the salts separated. During that time, one of Telkes's cousins lived in the house with his wife and child, according to MIT. The project was discontinued, in part because of interpersonal conflict between the institution and Telkes, writes scholar Sara Denise Shreve. However, Telkes’s career lasted much longer, and she continued to come up with innovative solar solutions.  She went on to come up with solar stoves and solar heaters, as well as developing solar materials for the space program.

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