Mária Telkes, a 20th century physicist, is nicknamed the Sun Queen because of her contributions to solar energy research and innovation in the United States. A new PBS documentary, that shares the name of her famous moniker entitled "The Sun Queen," is the latest installment in the network's American Experience series—a collection of documentaries on the events and people that have shaped American life. Now available for streaming, the documentary explores Telkes's life and the history of solar power technological advances in the U.S. The film also aims to spread awareness of her professional journey to viewers who may not know her.
First airing on April 4, the film takes viewers through Telkes's early years, during which she imagined a world in which everyone could harness free power from the sun. Her interest in solar energy remained strongthrough her college years at the University of Budapest, culminating in her earning a doctorate in physical chemistry in 1924. In the 1930s, she emigrated from Hungary to the U.S., working at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation as a biophysicist.
The film follows Tekles through a resurgent interest in solar power in the ’30s, 50 years after scant progress following the initial global solar craze in the 1880s. Telkes joined a male-dominated team at MIT during this time, working on the Solar Energy Conversion Project, where she experienced professional highs such as her solar cooking oven, that traps heat from the sun to reach 350 degrees Celsius, and lows including sexism.
Throughout her many successes and failures, the documentary points out, Telkes never gave up trying to make solar energy accessible to all. She collaborated with Eleanor Raymond, an accomplished architect, and Amelia Peabody, a philanthropist to build the 1948 Dover Sun House in Dover, Mass., a residence solely heated and powered by the sun. A series of 18 dual-layered glass windows with air between the panes would collect heat from the sun, which would be stored inside metal drums filled with Glauber salts that could be used to heat the home without requiring a tradtitional furnice. Although an initial success, the Sun House ultimately succumbed to mechanical issues and was demolished decades later around 2010. Telkes also created a solar-powered still, a water distillation apparatus that could produce around 40 gallons of drinkable water a day.
The documentary's producer and director Amanda Pollak walks ARCHITECT through how "The Sun Queen" was made and provides additional insights about the accomplished woman and her work creating solar technology that paved the way for today's solar applications in residential and commercial architectural projects. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
ARCHITECT: Mária Telkes has made significant contributions to solar energy technology, and design. What was the process for documenting Telkes, a somewhat-unknown figure?
Amanda Pollak: The films that we have made for American Experience have been a lot about subjects that are more commonly known. For example, we did a big, six-hour film about World War I called “The Great War,” and we most recently made a film about William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper mogul—subjects that are more widely known. So, coming across Mária Telkes, we had to figure out how to tell her story when there wasn't a major book written about her or a deep archive of materials to pull from. It was daunting at first, but it turned out to be the most fun part of producing the documentary.
Can you tell us more about how you conducted research for the film?
It was tricky. One of the first things we had to do was find the people we wanted to interview in the film. We were relying heavily on writing and experts to take us through Telkes’s story.
There was a wonderful dissertation written by Sara Shreve-Price and there was a book that Daniel Barber wrote about the history of solar energy in the 1950s. There was not a lot of material on Telkes at all. Figuring out how we could find a cast of storytellers who could help bring her to life, we really had to dig. We found a podcast series called What’sHerName, that looks at women who have been forgotten by history. We also found an architect, Michelle Addington—who could help contextualize Telkes’s work within architecture—and Ivan Penn, a climate reporter from the New York Times.
How do you think the documentary will impact viewers who may have not known about the contributions Telkes made to energy efficiency, design, and architecture?
Her story, I hope in a way, will make people mad or a little bit frustrated. I see her story as a cautionary tale. There were really two forces that I think held her work back from being recognized as it should have been. One of them was sexism. She faced an enormous obstacle at MIT. The men part of the Solar Energy Conversion Project, which was a group of solar energy experts assembled by the university, didn't want to deal with her, so they shunted her aside. I think she was probably a difficult colleague to have, but I think there were surely many male colleagues who were also difficult and who got more opportunities to continue their experimentation than she did. One of the things that I think about in that realm is: who has the opportunity to fail? So much of scientific discovery is based on failure. So, yes, some of her early experiments had problems, but that happens all the time, and yet those setbacks were used as reasons to not let her continue her work at MIT.
It was also a revelation to learn how much the topic of solar energy was on people’s minds going all the way back to the 1880s. This is something that people were really focused on. This idea of energy conservation and finding alternative sources of energy was important. There was this conservation mindset. So much of her work and life was built on that.
The second force that impacted Telkes's ability to be recognized for her work came in the 1950s. During this period, when ‘cheap fossil fuels’ became widely available, the ground was pulled out from under America's interest in harnessing power from the sun. I think so much of the reason why Telkes didn’t become a household name, and we don't know the work, is because all eyes got diverted. When I think about this, it makes me say: please, let’s not do this again. The real takeaway from Telkes’s story, for me, is how we can make sure we’re not continuing to make the same mistakes that didn’t allow her work to blossom.
As you mentioned, the documentary discusses Telkes’s difficulty with men who didn’t give her due respect because she was a woman. Why was it important to include this in the film?
Her story was not solely that she was a victim of sexism. That was certainly an aspect of what happened to her, but it was not the story we wanted to tell. It’s not so much that she was fired by the men at MIT., it’s that she was being held back and not given the latitude to perform the experiments that she needed to do. That’s what scientific discovery is all about.
I think she was a difficult person, and a hard colleague to collaborate with. I hope that came through in the film. Those dynamics seemed like an important element to include. They are also a reminder of all the stories and innovations that have not been given enough air because of sexism.
Coming off the heels of Women’s History Month in March, how do you think Telkes has influenced women in design today?
I hope that getting her story out there more will have an effect. One of the moments in the film that I love the most is when she’s shunted aside at MIT—and isn’t given the power to do what she wants—she finds architect Eleanor Raymond and philanthropist Amelia Peabody. And the three of them take on the Dover Sun House project. I think that so much of accomplishing what we want in life is about finding the right collaborators.
Despite the fact that Telkes kept hitting obstacles, she kept finding her way and coming up with solutions; it’s what design is all about—how we work with the reality of our circumstances and come up with a creative way to make something beautiful, effective, and efficient.
What do you think architects can take away from the film about Telkes’s legacy and the history of solar energy in America?
We didn’t dig too much into the present-day efforts around solar. But it’s kind of exciting to see how prominent solar is now and how much it is being fully integrated into so much design and architecture.
I think we’re asking so many of the same questions right now that scientists and designers were asking then, such as: how can we create sustainable houses? How can we create enough housing like Telkes was doing at a time right after World War II—when huge numbers of people coming back from the war were starting families and needing housing?
We’re in a similar position right now with the housing crunch. The challenge now is how do we build housing that is beautiful, sustainable, and affordable. It feels very top of mind in terms of what we need to be thinking about, and what, I believe, the architecture and design community is focused on right now.
Looking back at the last seventy years through a solar energy lens makes me think: how have we not progressed more? I hope architects and designers can find a way to achieve the dream that Mária Telkes always had, which was to live off the power of the sun.
Why do you think the landscape of solar energy efficiency hasn't progressed as much?
The story of solar energy illuminates that so much of innovation is really about socio-political and economic forces and whether they’re aligned behind something. Of course, yes, there’s the light bulb moment of discovering something that works scientifically. But so much of what becomes a success versus a failure has to do with all of these forces that are either underpinning or undermining a particular innovation.