PBS documentary looks at the life of solar power pioneer Mária Telkes - Albuquerque Journal

PBS documentary looks at the life of solar power pioneer Mária Telkes

Mária Telkes
Mária Telkes at the Dover Sun House in February 1949. Telkes is the subject of the documentary, “The Sun Queen.” (Courtesy of Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock)

Andrew Nemethy grew up in the Dover Sun House in Massachusetts designed by Mária Telkes, living there from 1948 to 1963.

“I was 3 years old when I moved in,” he says. “I remember it being sunny and I could play all around it when I was little. As a journalist, I realized that this part of my life was an amazing story.”

Nemethy is featured in the documentary, “The Sun Queen,” which chronicles Telkes life. It airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 4, on New Mexico PBS, channel 5.1, and is broadcast under the American Experience series. It also streams on the PBS app.

The documentary focuses on Telkes, a chemical engineer and inventor who applied her prodigious intellect to harnessing the power of the sun.

She, along with architect Eleanor Raymond, designed and built the world’s first successfully solar-heated modern residence. Telkes identified a promising new chemical that, for the first time, could store solar heat like a battery. And yet, along the way, she was undercut and thwarted by her boss and colleagues – all men – at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Despite these obstacles, Telkes persevered and, upon her death in 1995, held more than 20 patents. She is now recognized as a visionary pioneer in the field of sustainable energy.

Nemethy lived in the house until he was 18, when he moved away for college. His parents owned the house until they died, he says.

Completed in 1948, the Dover Sun House was unlike earlier Telkes prototypes and designed to be lived in by a family.

The Nemethys, a Hungarian émigré family, moved in around Christmas 1948.

Mária Telkes
Andrew Nemethy and his mother check the thermostat at the Dover Sun House circa 1950. (Courtesy of Andrew Nemethy)

It was soon one of the most famous houses in the country, and Telkes became a media celebrity.

“I remember my parents giving tours of the home to people who came to visit,” Nemethy says. “They would open the home up for tours because people wanted to see it.”

Telkes continued to innovate and created a solar-powered oven that is still in use and continued to push her vision of solar housing for the masses.

But by the mid-1950s, the Dover Sun House began to fall into disrepair. Materials corroded and systems failed. Undeterred, she refused to see the experiment as a failure and continued to work on refinements.

But the quest for solar solutions was sidelined by the much-publicized failure of the Dover Sun House and an American economy fueled by cheap and abundant petroleum. The age of fossil fuels had arrived.

Scholar Olivia Meikle is featured in the documentary and speaks about Telkes.

“What really is the tragedy here is what she could have accomplished,” Meikle says. “We won’t ever be able to know what she could have done. Maybe she could have made these huge leaps. Maybe we could have been a decade or two ahead on solar power from where we are now.”

Nemethy says he had a chance to buy the house after his father’s death in 1984, but didn’t.

“I was living in Vermont and the home had fallen into disrepair,” he says. “There was some sadness that it had to be torn down. I love that the whole house is being revisited in this documentary. It was ahead of its time and pure fun for me as a child growing up.”

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