Meet the first ever solar heated house: The Dover Sun House

A photo of a house with huge glass windows in the front. The "Dover Sun House" (1948), designed for Amelia Peabody in Dover, MA, by Eleanor Raymond and Maria Telkes Photo: Tony Denzer, The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design
The "Dover Sun House" (1948), designed for Amelia Peabody in Dover, MA, by Eleanor Raymond and Maria Telkes. Photo: Tony Denzer, The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design
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Fantastic Women Series

The term solar energy has become ubiquitous as part of our move towards the larger renewable energy mix. We are all now more than aware of the dire need of cutting down on fossil fuels and moving towards using renewable sources of energy for all of our needs, if we are to keep temperatures conducive to ours (and other species) requirements. As we move on through the 21st century, more and more of us are using solar panels or solar PV to heat and light our homes.

But did you know that there was a time when this was a novel idea, when three pioneering women first decided to heat a home with solar energy in December 1948? So we celebrate this amazing innovation and these three fantastic women.

Nestled amidst the tranquil landscape of Dover, Massachusetts, the Dover Sun House was a testament to human ingenuity and a pivotal moment in the history of solar energy. Designed by architect Eleanor Raymond and physicist Maria Telkes, this remarkable residence emerged on December 3, 1948 as one of the world’s first solar-heated houses.


Dover Sun House in colour screen grab from a PBS video. The house can be seen against a drawing of giant orange sun in the background.

Dover Sun House in colour screen grab from a PBS video


This unique residence was the brainchild of Amelia Peabody (July 3, 1890 – May 31, 1984), a Boston heiress, philanthropist, and sculptress, deeply intrigued by the potential of solar energy. Recognizing the limitations of conventional heating methods and the promise of harnessing the sun’s power, Peabody sought to create a home that would not only be sustainable but also serve as a beacon of innovation. On her property, she financed the construction of one of the world’s first solar-heated houses.


Amelia Peabody, from her 1922 passport application. Black and white photo, with Amelia sitting with her body to the right but facing the camera. She is holding books.

Amelia Peabody, from her 1922 passport application.

Eleanor Raymond  (March 4, 1887 – July 24, 1989) was an American architect who left an indelible mark on the world of residential design. Over the course of her 60-year career, she consistently pushed the boundaries of architectural expression, experimenting with innovative materials and building systems to create spaces that were not only aesthetically pleasing but also functional and sustainable. Raymond’s work was deeply influenced by the modernist movement, which emphasized simplicity, clean lines, and an open floor plan.

Eleanor Raymond 1924 Passport Photo. Black and white and a somewhat faded photo. Eleanor is looking straight at the camera.

Eleanor Raymond 1924 Passport Photo

Maria Telkes (December 12, 1900 – December 2, 1995) was a Hungarian-American biophysicist and inventor who worked on solar energy technologies. She moved to the US in 1925 and starting working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to create practical uses of solar energy in 1939. In 1952, Telkes became the first recipient of the Society of Women Engineers Achievement Award.

Dr. Maria Telkes half-length portrait, facing front

Dr Maria Telkes


Under Peabody’s patronage, Raymond and Telkes embarked on a groundbreaking endeavour to design a solar-powered home. Raymond, renowned for her modernist architectural style, envisioned a residence that seamlessly integrated solar technology into its design. Telkes, a pioneer in solar energy research, developed a novel heating system that utilized a combination of glass panels, water tanks, and blackened metal plates to capture and store the sun’s energy.

The Dover Sun House emerged as a striking architectural statement, blending modern aesthetics with innovative technology. Its south-facing wall was adorned with a massive glass panel, allowing sunlight to penetrate and heat the interior. Behind this glass barrier, a series of water tanks served as thermal reservoirs, storing the sun’s warmth for use during colder periods. Telkes’ ingenious heating system employed blackened metal plates to further enhance energy absorption, efficiently converting sunlight into usable heat.

The Dover Sun House’s innovative design attracted widespread attention, earning it recognition as a groundbreaking achievement in solar energy utilization. The residence served as a living laboratory, providing valuable insights into the practical applications of solar technology for residential heating. It also inspired a surge of interest in solar energy, paving the way for future advancements in this field.

A cousin of Maria Telkes, Dr Anthony Nemethy, inhabited the house with his wife and child, renting it for a very small amount of money, with the caveat that they would allow visitors to come and see how it worked.

The house was very successful in its first two years of operation and attracted a variety of visitors. Popular Science hailed it as perhaps more important, scientifically, than the atomic bomb.


Popular Science Cover depicting the Dover Sun House, the first house heated by solar energy.

Popular Science Cover depicting the Dover Sun House, the first house heated by solar energy.


Despite its groundbreaking significance, the Dover Sun House faced challenges in its early years. The solar heating system, while innovative, proved less efficient than anticipated, requiring supplementation with conventional heating methods during particularly cold periods. Additionally, the house’s unique design, with its extensive glass panels and water tanks, presented maintenance challenges.

In 1954, after six years of operation, the solar heating system was ultimately replaced with a conventional oil-fired system. This decision, while driven by practical considerations, marked a turning point in the house’s history, diminishing its role as a pure solar-powered residence.

Despite this modification, the Dover Sun House retained its symbolic importance as a pioneer in solar energy. It continued to serve as a reminder of the potential of renewable energy sources and the importance of exploring sustainable alternatives to conventional heating methods.

In 2010, the Dover Sun House was demolished, its physical structure succumbing to the passage of time. However, its legacy lives on in the annals of solar energy history. The house’s groundbreaking design, innovative heating system, and pioneering role in promoting solar energy continue to inspire generations of scientists, architects, and environmentalists.

Here is a video by PBS on how it worked:


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I am a Chartered Environmentalist from the Royal Society for the Environment, UK and co-owner of DoLocal Digital Marketing Agency Ltd, with a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University, an MBA in Finance, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics. I am passionate about science, history and environment and love to create content on these topics.