By JACKIE HAUSLER
Published April 10, 2023
Harnessing the power of the sun is a hot topic these days as society shifts toward a point where renewable energy is at the forefront of innovation to help save our planet. But what might be surprising is that solar energy is not new technology at all. In fact, Hungarian scientist Mária Telkes dedicated her career to solar technologies as early as the 1930s.
The story of her life, legacy and miraculous discoveries is unfolding in a new PBS documentary, “The Sun Queen.” The documentary calls upon expert scientists and historians to help tell Telkes’ story, including UB environmental historian Adam Rome.
Rome, professor in the Department of Environment and Sustainability, College of Arts and Sciences, first learned of Telkes in the mid-1990s while writing his dissertation on how Americans began to worry about the environmental costs of the post-World War II-style of mass-produced suburban housing construction. “I discovered that there was tremendous interest in the late 1940s and early 1950s in ‘solar houses’ and Telkes was the most celebrated advocate of that kind of building,” says Rome. “She even was featured in Life magazine.”
Rome later turned his dissertation into his first book, “The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism.” The award-winning book came full circle with the PBS documentary when Rome was informed the documentary’s writer and producer, Gene Tempest, had read it. Tempest and Rome finally met in person when Rome traveled to New York City to film the documentary with PBS and dive deeper into Telkes’ story.
As a woman in a male-dominated field, Telkes overcame many obstacles to pursue her dream and help the planet. The solar pioneer held more than 20 patents for her innovations and designed the first solar-heated house in 1948. But due to affordable energy costs in the 1950s, her ideas stalled.
“In the short run, Telkes met with disappointment. Energy was unbelievably cheap in the 1950s, and few Americans were worried about the environmental costs of fossil fuels,” says Rome. “So the solar house was a tough sell. Later, though, with the rise of the environmental movement and the energy crisis of the 1970s, a lot of people became interested in how to use the sun to power civilization, and those folks found inspiration in Telkes.
“She really was ahead of her time — and she was tremendously determined,” he adds.
The documentary premiered on April 4; viewers can watch “The Sun Queen” for free by visiting PBS.com or by streaming it on the PBS app.
Rome’s areas of expertise include environmental movement in the U.S., environmental history, Earth Day, sustainable business and suburban sprawl. In addition to “The Bulldozer in the Countryside,” he is the author of “The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation.” He also co-edited “Green Capitalism? Business and the Environment in the Twentieth Century.”