The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
The Vilcek Foundation Newsletter
Immigrant Inventors: Past and Present
I remember as a teenager seeing the beautiful Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr in the Czech movie Ecstasy, in which she was seen running through a forest in the nude. That few-second scene made such an impression on me that – even though I forgot what the rest of the movie was about – I vividly remember it to this day. It also created an international sensation and led to Hedy Lamarr's successful career in Hollywood. But I have since learned something else about this remarkable woman that has made another great impression on me: She was also an inventor. Together with George Antheil, she developed a form of wireless communication called frequency hopping, intended for use during the Second World War; it is now known as spread-spectrum, and has found important use in wireless communications.
We tend to think of creating inventions as a quintessentially American pursuit. Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, and a carriage odometer, with many other American inventors following suit. We all appreciate the role inventors and inventions play in our daily lives and in the health of our national economy (think iPhones or biotechnology). The United States still leads the world in the number and importance of patentable inventions; last year alone, close to 500,000 patent applications were filed in this country. (Of course, many U.S. patent applications are filed by inventors living abroad.) In our current newsletter, the Vilcek Foundation illustrates a less well-known aspect of inventorship – the contribution of immigrants to inventions created in the US. As an immigrant and a patent holder myself, this is a topic very close to my heart.
Though there is no accurate way to determine the precise number of immigrant inventors (patents do not reveal birthplaces of the inventors), a few years ago I published an analysis of the representation of immigrants among Nobel Prize winners in just one category, Physiology or Medicine. I found that approximately one-third of all Nobel Prize winners in that category who received their awards between 1901 and 2007 for work done in the United States were born abroad. Backing up that observation, in 2008, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute selected 56 scientists of the younger generation from among 1,070 applications submitted in a nationwide competition for the Institute's prestigious investigatorships. Of the 56 researchers chosen (42 men and 14 women), at least 25, or 45%, were foreign-born. Based on this evidence of the important contributions immigrants make to science in this country, I believe that the proportion of immigrants among U.S. patent holders also must be markedly higher than would be expected, based on their representation in the general population.
Why do immigrants in the United States excel as innovators and inventors? Is it because individuals who have the courage to pack up and leave their native countries and, in a very real sense, start over, tend to be more creative, more willing to take risks? Or is it that economic and social pressures on immigrants in their new country motivate them to higher performance levels? Whatever the reason, America, the prototypical land of immigrants, ends up the big winner.
Even after Hedy Lamarr had retired from acting, she was still known as the most beautiful woman in Hollywood. Her beauty, as fellow actress Lana Turner once wrote, was "enough to make strong men faint." However, her superlative face largely overshadowed a life and a mind more fascinating than those of the women she portrayed on screen. From her role in the notorious 1932 Czech film Ecstasy, which featured the young actress in the nude, to her co-invention of a frequency-hopping system that is now the basis for many military and civilian wireless communication systems, Lamarr was a woman who was always ahead of her time.
Her story is a fascinating one, one recently revisited by author Stephen Michael Shearer in his book Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr, published by Thomas Dunne Books (2010). "[She] is unique among all film stars because of her double legacy," writes Shearer. "There had been no official biography done on her, and I felt her importance to film and science necessitated a definitive accounting."
Born Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler to affluent Jewish parents in Vienna, Austria, in 1914, she became enamored with acting while very young, and left school to devote herself to a burgeoning stage and screen career. Personal and political factors, however, conspired to disrupt her career. At 19, she married Friedrich "Fritz" Mandl, a wealthy arms manufacturer. He was a controlling spouse who demanded Lamarr give up her acting career, and, at times, kept her a virtual prisoner in the sumptuous apartments and estates owned by his family.
As Fascist governments gained political and military power in Europe, Mandl carried on extensive business dealings with officials of the German Third Reich, requiring long, detailed conferences, which Lamarr was often forced by Mandl to attend. More disgusting to her, however, was that Mandl distanced himself from his Jewish heritage, even going so far as to accept the title of "Honorary Aryan" from the Third Reich.
Between being privy to Nazi Germany's military plans, and witnessing firsthand the onslaught of the 1938 Nazi occupation of Austria, Lamarr knew her life was in danger. With the help of a servant, Lamarr disguised herself one night in 1937 and left both Mandl and her beloved homeland, taking with her only her most expensive jewelry. She spent a short time in Paris and London before making her way to Hollywood, where she lost little time in adopting her now famous moniker and rekindling her acting career.
Despite her success during Hollywood's Golden Age, her experience with Mandl and Nazi Germany continued to haunt her. With the onset of World War II, Lamarr became determined to do whatever she could to aid the American war effort. She composed patriotic songs in her spare time between movie sets, and washed dishes and signed autographs two nights a week at the Hollywood Canteen for enlisted men and women. In 1942, Lamarr embarked on a ten-day tour to raise money to support the war effort through selling war bonds, raising over $6 million in one day. "Her patriotism was astonishingly deep," said Shearer. "She knew...that the threat of Fascism was very real."
Her most significant contribution to the war effort, however, was largely overlooked at the time. Lamarr had absorbed a lot of technical information about the Third Reich's military capabilities from Mandl's munitions dealings, information she was sure she could put to use. Together with her friend George Antheil, an avant-garde piano composer, author and inventor, she worked to perfect a torpedo guidance system based on wireless communication. At the time, torpedoes were highly unreliable, often missing their targets; furthermore, the radio frequencies and channels they relied on were unsecured and so could be easily intercepted by the enemy. Lamarr's innovation was a guidance system in which a transmitter was fixed with a continuously, randomly shifting frequency, and a corresponding receiver programmed to match the shifts. To an outside party with no knowledge of the pattern, it would be virtually impossible to follow the shifts.
Using his knowledge of musical instruments, Antheil incorporated two player-piano rolls punched with an identical pattern within the transmitters and receivers; these would be used to guide the frequencies. Lamarr and Antheil patented what they called the Secret Communication System in August 1942, and then immediately offered it to the U.S. government. Although there was some interest, the system was never employed during the war.
It was two decades later, just after the patent expired, that the Secret Communications System took on new importance, due to the rise of electronic and wireless communication. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the frequency-hopping system proved instrumental in providing secure communications. The concept was later refined and used during the Vietnam War, at which time it became known as "frequency-hopping spread spectrum."
By 1981, now declassified for commercial use, millions of corporate dollars were invested to explore potential uses for the invention. Today, the technology is an important component of cellular phone networks, alarm systems, and global-positioning satellites. A decade later, it served as the basis of the $25 billion U.S. Milstar defense communications satellite system.
It was not until 1997 that Lamarr and Antheil were recognized for their invention, at which time they received the sixth annual Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award. Later that year, Lamarr was also awarded a BULBIE Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award, the Oscar for inventors, the first woman to be so honored. She also received a Viktor Kaplan Medal from the Austrian Association of Patent Holders. Today, in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, Lamarr's birthday, November 9, is celebrated as Inventors' Day.
To most, Lamarr's legacy will probably always be her show-stopping beauty. But those willing to look beyond know she was much more. Her contributions to modern telecommunications are, Shearer says, "unfathomable." While writing Beautiful, Shearer adds, "I found a very human, human being, gifted with a brilliant mind [that was] overshadowed by a breathtaking physical beauty."
All photographs courtesy of Stephen Michael Shearer.
Alexey Pajitnov didn't set out to create a commercial blockbuster when he first conceived of Tetris, and he certainly didn't think it would become one of the most enduringly popular games of all time. Yet even early on, he admits he had a hint of what it might become. At the time, Pajitnov was a programmer in the field of artificial intelligence at the Soviet Academy of the Sciences, and he created the game both as an exercise to familiarize himself with his lab's new Electronika 60 computer, and as a distraction from work.
In the latter respect the game proved to be an immediate hit among his friends and coworkers, even with sparse graphics made up of only alphanumeric characters. Soon, harried supervisors were kept busy deleting it from office computers as rapidly as it spread. No one, it seemed, could stop playing Tetris⎯not even its creator. "When I first started building it, I knew it was a good game because I could not stop playing it myself," says Pajitnov. "But I never thought it would be this big."
Today, 26 years after its conception, Tetris remains a global phenomenon. The game has been translated into more than 50 languages, produced in over 50 countries, and programmed for more than 30 different gaming platforms. It is consistently named among the top video games ever created by publications such as Entertainment Weekly, Guinness World Records 2009 Gamer's Edition, EDGE magazine, and gaming website IGN.com.
Tetris is a simple puzzle game, made up of falling blocks of four units each, known as Tetraminos; blocks must be stacked to create a solid line before they disappear. Incomplete lines remain on the screen and build up; if the stacked blocks reach the top of the screen, the game is over. Although the concept of the game is simple and easy to understand, it has become an abiding classic, and remains fresh today. "A classic is a classic for a reason," says Bill Loguidice, author of Vintage Games: An Insider Look at the History of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario, and the Most Influential Games of All Time. "Tetris is just about as close as you can get to a perfect video game, with just the right amount of approachability and depth to keep people coming back for more."
And while most video and electronic games have gone through revolutionary changes several times over since 1984, Tetris has continually reinvented itself, and charts robust sales to this day. It has been ranked as one of the All-Time Top 10 Paid Apps by the Apple iTunes Store, and more than 100 million versions have been sold for mobile devices alone. "People have their favorites, Tetris being one of them, and they want to keep experiencing it when they move on to the latest technology, be it a new game console, a new cell phone, or anything in between," explains Loguidice. "You're all but assured that as long as any new technology has some type of display and the simplest of controls, Tetris in one form or another will be on it, and people will buy it."
As video games change, attitudes about them continue to evolve as well. A recent study by Oxford University suggested that playing Tetris could alleviate the experience of posttraumatic stress disorder, yet the media and public remain ambivalent about the role video games play in our society. It is a debate Pajitnov has seen develop through the years: "This is something that has been discussed since I started working on games, over 25 years ago. Originally, people were very concerned about the eyes and vision, because the displays were bad. Then there were waves of discussion about violence in games⎯people were blaming video games for all the violence around. And now the discussion is about addiction. Myself, I have never shared those concerns. I am a very dedicated player and I have never developed any of those impacts," says Pajitnov. "In fact, I think games are the best type of activity⎯much better than sitting in a chair watching something, because it stimulates mental activity."
Still, Pajitnov warns us to take his advice with a grain of salt: "I am not a guru; I am just a normal person," he says. Meaning, perhaps, that in the end, he's just as susceptible to the pull of Tetris as we are.
Tetris(R) & (C) 1985~2010 and Tetris trade dress are owned by Tetris Holding.
The works of author and publisher Hugo Gernsback - a man Life magazine called the "Barnum of the space age" - were once considered sensationalism. Today, however, fans know them definitively as science fiction, and Gernsback, as the father of science fiction.
Gernsback (originally Gernsbacher) was born in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, in 1884, to a family of vintners. As a child, he developed an interest and showed a precocious ability in technology; at six, he deconstructed an electric bell, and at the age of thirteen, he installed a telephone system in a Luxembourg convent⎯reportedly, with special permission from Pope Leo XIII. After pursuing an education in electrical engineering, he emigrated to the United States, in 1904, with hopes of patenting a dry-cell radio battery he had designed and built. In 1907, he was awarded a patent for his invention, but failed to market it successfully for long, due to the high cost of production. Nevertheless, Gernsback proved to be a prolific inventor and held 80 patents at the time of his death, mostly for radio devices. Unsurprisingly, the man credited with fathering science fiction had some unusual inventions patented under his name as well. Among them were machines such as the Hypnobioscope, a teaching device for sleep learning, and the osophone, a hearing aid that allowed deaf people to hear through vibrations in their teeth. could contribute to scientific progress."
But it is as a writer and publisher that Gernsback is remembered today. His company, Experimenter Publishing, launched more than fifty magazines, the first of which was Modern Electrics, in 1908. Initially intended as a source of mail-order parts for radio hobbyists of the day, it evolved into a publication for technology-based fiction, with the first story appearing in the April 1911 issue. Ever the avid radio enthusiast, in 1925, Gernsback founded the radio station WRNY in 1925, to promote his magazines. It was from this station that one of the earliest television broadcasts was transmitted, to 2,000 radio enthusiasts with homemade scanners.
It was also in Modern Electrics that Gernsback's own literary career got its start. Needing to fill empty space in the back of an issue in 1911, he published the first installation of what would eventually become a twelve-part serial, and later be published as the novel Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660. The adventure story, which took place in a fantastical, technologically advanced future, captured the imagination of Gernsback's readers, and prompted him to focus his attention on this new genre of fiction.
Ralph 124C 41+ was not, strictly speaking, the first science fiction story ever written; it is more accurate to say that Gernsback was the first to recognize the unique characteristics of the genre, and to describe them as traits of a distinct category of literature, which he called scientification. Among its key characteristics, according to Gary Westfahl, a literary scholar and author of Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction (McFarland & Company, 2007), is the dual functionality it serves, as both entertainment and education. "While conceding that one of its primary purposes was entertainment," said Westfahl, "Gernsback wanted science fiction to present accurate scientific information, so it could be educational, and to include practical suggestions for future inventions, so it could contribute to scientific progress."
It was as a writer, more so than as an inventor, that Gernsback's imagination flourished. If his scientific knowledge was limited to electrical engineering and broadcast technology, his creative vision knew no bounds. He wrote extensively and enthusiastically on the technological potential of the future in a wide range of fields. Many of the inventions he created for his stories have since become reality⎯notably, cell phones, computer dating, radar guidance, flat-screen televisions, birth control, and virtual reality. He also predicted on numerous occasions that a lunar landing would occur between 1970 and 1975⎯and he was not far off.
During his most active period as a publisher and editor, in the 1920s and 1930s, Gernsback's company owned several science, humor, and fiction magazines, including Science and Invention, Science Wonder Stories, Radio Craft, Aviation, Moneymaking, Superworld Comics, Woman's Digest, and Television News. The most famous, however, was Amazing Stories, launched in April 1926 as the first magazine dedicated solely to science fiction. Prior to its publication, science fiction writers had to compete for space in other magazines, among them some of Gernsback's own. Amazing Stories, published for almost eighty years, helped define scientification⎯a term Gernsback eventually retired in favor of the now-familiar "science fiction."
Gernsback's legacy is alive and well today, most notably in the form of the Hugo Awards, which are named in his honor and are among the most prestigious awards presented in the field of science fiction. "Gernsback," said Westfahl, "dreamed of the day when 'every man, woman, boy and girl,' could be induced to read science fiction. [He] began the process of convincing the world that science fiction was important and worth reading, and he was ultimately successful." Even today, "hard" science fiction must be based on accurate information and logical development to qualify for the awards, reflecting Gernsback's lasting influence on the genre. And only time will tell how many more of his predictions have yet to be realized.
It is exceedingly hard to imagine, but there was a time – a lengthy period, actually, and not too long ago – when engineer Sanjai Kohli and his partner, Steven Chen, struggled to convince manufacturers that global positioning satellite (GPS) devices could be a relevant and profitable product for the mass market. "We basically spent 1996 and 1997 trying to convince the marketing departments of consumer electronics companies to invest in mass market GPS navigation systems, and they pretty much told us to go away," says Kohli. "It was torture at some points."
Today, GPS is ubiquitous in the United States. It is used in navigational devices by drivers, pedestrians, pilots, hikers, and cross-country skiers. Scientists use it to track endangered animals, bird watchers to follow migrating flocks, and pet owners to locate missing pets. Retailers use it to collect marketing information, cameras embed geographical information of where each photo was taken, and there are numerous smartphone applications based on GPS. It has become such a staple of modern life, in fact, that Kohli predicts in 2 to 3 years, it will not be possible to purchase a new phone without it.
That's a far cry from its origins. GPS was originally developed for military use in the 1970 and 1980s. In Operation Desert Storm; it enabled soldiers to navigate an expansive terrain that was completely without landmarks. It was also used to create guided systems for bombs to reduce the chances of hitting unintended targets. At the time, it had very limited commercial use, mostly restricted to geographical land surveying, commercial shipping, and recreational boating and hiking. However, Kohli, then working as an engineer for a US military contractor, saw the potential for mass commercial GPS usage – if only the system could be adapted for urban use at consumer electronic price points.
Urban GPS navigation systems, as they first existed, were bulky, unreliable, and expensive. They were the size of a small suitcase, needed several external sensors, such as gyros and odometers, and wide, open spaces in order to pick up a reliable satellite signal. It required at least four satellites to work and cost between five to ten thousand dollars, which, in the 1990s, was the price of an inexpensive car. Despite being told that improving upon the existing system was impossible, Kohli founded a company named SiRF and set out to do just that.
Luckily, Indian-born Kohli had the perseverance that comes from being an immigrant: "To some extent, you always had to prove yourself, and to get the same recognition, you had to push yourself in ways that people who are nonimmigrants wouldn't. And the easiest way to gain recognition is to do things differently – not for the sake of being different, but by pushing yourself to think more creatively and originally."
At SiRF, Kohli and Chen led engineering teams that developed the technology that revolutionized GPS. Their innovations were based on the concept of massively parallel signal processing, allowing them to create chips whose power were increased by a factor of one thousand. These chips greatly reduced the processing time GPS signals needed to be located from several minutes to milliseconds. In addition, the new GPS system could leverage alternative sources when other satellites were down, and remain in operation with only one operating satellite.
This past spring, Kohli was named one of the 2010 Inventors of the Year by the European Patent Office, a prestigious honor given to individuals and teams that have had a tremendous impact on the modern world, as well as having contributed significantly to Europe's economic growth. Nevertheless, the proliferation of GPS has still taken Kohli by surprise. "At this point, we just take it for granted – it's just something that's out there," says Kohli. "But if you look back at it, from the perspective of how it started, you think, how did it ever become so big?'"
Today, GPS is a worldwide phenomenon. Over 300 million units were sold in 2009, and over 400 million units are forecasted for 2010. According to RNCOS, a global market research company, sales of GPS devices are expected to exceed US$75 billion by 2013.
However, if he has any advice for aspiring inventors, it is only that they should be focused on the usefulness and innovativeness of their creation, and not the potential profits. "The first question I ask hopeful inventors is, 'Why do you want to do this?' 65 percent say, to make a lot of money. And if that is what is driving them, then usually they don't cross the finish line," says Kohli. "If they are creating something useful, then the economic benefits will follow. The dollars are good, but the focus should be something else. The best validation is seeing something you made being used out there. Money is always good."
On the list of Top 100 Living Geniuses, compiled in 2007 by the global consultants firm Creators Synectics, Vietnamese-born Dr. Tuan Vo-Dinh ranks 43rd. He is accompanied on the list by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Nelson Mandela, David Bowie, and Bill Gates. Like many highly accomplished people, however, Vo-Dinh is quick to point out how much of his success he owes to the many colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students he has worked with over the course of his career in the field of photonics, a branch of physics that deals with the properties and uses of photons, with applications ranging from information transmission to medical diagnostics.
Vo-Dinh is no stranger to honors; he has received many since he began his career as a researcher. After earning his B.S. in Physics from the École Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne, Switzerland, and his Ph.D. in Biophysical Chemistry from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, he came to the United States to lead a research group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Advanced Biomedical Science and Technology Group in ORNL's Life Sciences Division. There, several technologies were developed that revolutionized the way human and environmental health is evaluated - notably, sensors for atmospheric pollutants that can be worn by workers in hazardous environments; a microchip to detect genetic diseases; a laser-based technology that instantaneously diagnoses cancer without a biopsy; and a nanobiosensor that can be inserted into intact cells, allowing for unprecedented insight into living cell functions.
Vo-Dinh's research has garnered him 7 R&D 100 awards, 26 patents, and 6 licensed technologies; he has been named a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and a UT-Battelle Corporate Fellow. He is also a prolific author, with 6 books and more than 300 scientific journal articles to his credit. Currently, he is the R. Eugene and Susie E. Goodson Distinguished Professor and the Director of The Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics at Duke University, where he is working toward developing technologies for minimally invasive detection and treatment of disease at its earliest stages.
At Duke, Vo-Dinh places great value on working with collaborators from diverse backgrounds and with different skill sets. "A university campus is the ultimate microcosm of the global village," he says. "It's very refreshing and intellectually stimulating to see, meet, and interact with all these young minds from all over the world, coming to this country to learn but also to contribute to its future. Like science, education has no borders."
This no-borders philosophy he extends to his intellectual approach, which is truly interdisciplinary. "I think there is a certain parallelism and connectivity between the humanities and the sciences," explains Vo-Dinh. "In some aspects, science, art, and philosophy are different dimensions of the human quest to find answers to fundamental questions of existence: Who are we? Where do we come from? What is the meaning of life?"
"Science is a human effort to unveil the physical laws of nature and open the doors to the hidden physical reality," Vo-Dinh continues. "Philosophy is another facet of our pursuit to understand the quintessence of life and capture the meaning of existence. Art is also an expression of the human attempt to depict and search for reality through visual, sensory, and emotional perceptions."
Such an interdisciplinary approach, Vo-Dinh predicts, will serve scientists well in the future. "We are in a very exciting period of science, because there is an epochal convergence of many revolutions of the twenty-first century: the quantum revolution, the technological revolution, and the genomics revolution. This convergence has created the most exciting time for inventors, the efforts of whom will be critically needed to address the challenges of our time. With the increasing awareness of our planet's limited resources, we are now entering a paradigm shift from a 'development-driven' society to a 'sustainability-driven' society. In this vision of harmony between mankind and nature, not only the sciences but also the humanities, together as the yin and yang of life, will be the ultimate driving forces in our quest for knowledge, human development, and societal progress."
There was a time when Dr. Maria Telkes's research in solar energy was considered irrelevant. The Hungarian-born physicist found her laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology disbanded, after the institution concluded that solar energy was inconsequential, given the plentiful supply of coal and oil-based fuels, and shut down its Solar Energy Conversion Project in the late 1940s.
Today, of course, solar energy is considered anything but irrelevant, and Telkes, known as the "Sun Queen," is widely recognized as the preeminent innovator in the field, whose body of research laid the groundwork for what is now a billion-dollar industry.
Telkes's interest in solar energy was truly a lifelong passion. Born in Budapest in 1900, she became interested in the power of the sun while still in high school. After completing a B.A. and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, she emigrated to the United States in 1925, to conduct biophysics research at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in life-transformative energy. In 1937, the same year she became a U.S. citizen, she accepted a position as a research engineer at Westinghouse Electric, where she studied the conversion of heat energy into electric energy. It was in 1940 that she began her partnership with MIT on the Solar Energy Conversion Project, marking the beginning of a fifty-year-long career in the effort to capture and deploy solar energy.
Telkes proved to be not only a skilled and innovative scientist, but a humanistic inventor as well. Many of her solar-powered devices were designed to improve the lives of people around the world. She developed a distillation system that used solar energy to vaporize seawater, which was then cooled into drinking water. The system, small enough to be fitted into life rafts, found great practical use during World War II, and saved the lives of many downed servicemen awaiting rescue at sea. For this, she was awarded a Certificate of Merit from the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, in 1945. The system later proved to be scalable, and was implemented to meet the needs of an entire community in the Virgin Islands, which did not have a reliable source of fresh water.
Telkes also sought to bring solar energy into the lives of average Americans. In 1948, while still at MIT, she partnered with architect Eleanor Raymond and artist and philanthropist Amelia Peabody to design Dover House, in Dover, Massachusetts, the first residential home with a heating system based entirely on solar energy. Once completed, the project drew much attention not only for its breakthrough applications of solar energy, but also for representing the groundbreaking work of three highly skilled women, all pioneers in professions then still dominated by men.
In 1953, Telkes was awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation, which she used to work on the development of a solar oven. Eventually, she perfected the design into a simple and sturdy device, safe enough to be operated by children, and inexpensive to produce. The oven was a major advantage to people in communities low on fuel but rich in sunlight, such as in desert areas; it provided a healthier, environmentally friendly, and non-labor-intensive alternative to traditional cooking fuels such as wood or coal.
That same year, she was awarded the first-ever Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award, and moved to the New York University College of Engineering to start up a lab dedicated to solar energy research. She spent most of the sixties in industry, before returning to academia, in her familiar role as a researcher at the University of Delaware's Institute of Energy Conversion.
In the 1970s, America was in the early days of its first serious oil crisis, and a new generation of scientists was turning to the field of solar energy as one possible solution. At that time, Dr. Karl Böer, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Solar Energy at the University of Delaware, a highly regarded scientist in the field of photovoltaic energy (a subset of solar energy), was organizing a conference at the school to discuss the development of Solar One, a project that would become the first residential home to incorporate a total systems approach to solar energy. "Solar One was the major breakthrough," said Böer. "It showed the world that solar energy was real, not just something that existed in the minds of professors. [Maria had already retired] but I invited her to the conference and asked if she had any time to help with the project. She said, 'Are you kidding?'"
"We had a team of ten that included the best architects and engineers in the country," said Böer, "but Maria was responsible for 20 percent of the work. She had an answer for everything." Upon completion, Solar One generated widespread public interest in solar energy, drawing more than 100,000 visitors in the first year alone. All the heating and electricity needs of the house were met with the use of solar panels.
Telkes laid the groundwork for a field that, today, Böer says, has the potential to drastically reduce ⎯ if not completely eradicate ⎯ American dependence on fossil fuels in the immediate future. But to those who knew her, Maria Telkes was much more than the quintessential scientist, the "Sun Queen." "She was an absolute lady," says Böer. "I speak many languages, including Hungarian. With most Hungarians, I greet them with the phrase 'Jo napot Kivanok,' which is similar to the American 'hi.' With Maria, I always said kezeit csokolom,' which would translate to, 'Madam, I kiss your hand.'"
Maria Telkes earned twenty patents in her lifetime, which was a long one, indeed. Until the age of 94, she remained affiliated with the University of Delaware, and worked as a consultant to companies around the world. One year later, she died in her native Budapest, in 1995.
To learn more about Dr. Karl Böer, visit his website at www.karlwboer.com