How Dr Mária Telkes And Her Solar Oven Helped WW2 Soldiers
Image Credit: Dr Maria Telkes

Duct tape, canned food, Freeze drying, Sanitary napkins… the list of items that are part of our mundane, everyday lives but began their own journeys as wartime/military inventions is long and varied. The common use of solar power in home appliances also owes some part of its origins to war. 

The story begins on this very day in the year 1900, in Budapest, where Mária Telkes was born. An academically gifted student, it came as no surprise when she grew up to earn a Bachelor’s degree and then a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Budapest. By the 1920s, her star had risen further and she moved to the US to work as a biophysicist. Cut to the early 1940s, when World War II was raging, and Dr Telkes was collaborating with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Solar Energy Conversion Project.

The US Army had been facing a very serious and fundamental issue in its war effort. The wide-ranging theatre of WW2 meant that many American soldiers found themselves stranded in the Pacific Ocean, with little or no access to drinking water. Was there a way, the US government asked Dr Telkes, a device could be invented that would purify water on the go for these soldiers, and yet be lightweight and fuss-free? 

Dr Telkes said it could be done. And she did, inventing a water de-salinator/distiller that harnessed solar power to make seawater potable. The simple device became a mandatory part of soldiers’ kits, and saved many a life. 

But Dr Telkes wasn’t done — not by a long shot. She firmly believed that sooner or later, humanity would have to increase its reliance on solar power for want of other alternatives, and if that was indeed the case, why not sooner? Spurred by a financial grant from the Ford Foundation in 1953, Dr Telkes began working on a device that could make cooking easier in places where access to wood or fossil fuels was scarce or restricted. Moreover, it would be large enough to accommodate the cooking needs of an entire community if needed.

As a principle, using sunlight to cook food was known of since the late 1700s and there had been several iterations of solar stoves. But Dr Telkes’ solar oven improved on existing knowledge to be both neat and nifty. It is described as “a classic box cooker — an insulated box of plywood with an inclined top of two layers of glass (with a small airspace between them) and four large flared reflectors”. The solar oven could provide heat up to 350 degrees, sufficient for  “baking bread or cooking a roast”. Telkes’ design is one that is still used — with variations — around the world today. 

There was another vital food-related benefit of Dr Telkes’ work as well: An offshoot of her solar oven provided a new way for farmers to dry their crops. With her inventions having such profound impacts, is it any wonder that Dr Telkes’ other moniker, the one she was popularly known by, was “Sun Queen”?