2012: Stanford Robert Ovshinsky Dies, Inventor and Scientist

When:
October 17, 2019 all-day
2019-10-17T00:00:00-04:00
2019-10-18T00:00:00-04:00

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New York Times Obituary:

Stanford Robert Ovshinsky (November 24, 1922 – October 17, 2012), an iconoclastic, largely self-taught  and commercially successful scientist who invented the nickel-metal hydride battery and contributed to the development of a host of devices, including solar energy panels, flat-panel displays and rewritable compact discs, died on Wednesday at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He was 89.

Placing Mr. Ovshinsky in “the league of genius inventors,” The Economist magazine once titled an article about him “The Edison of Our Age?”

If not quite that, he was certainly among the 20th century’s most inventive breed of scientists who, like Edison, parlayed their ideas into practical commercial applications.

He gained particular attention for upsetting common wisdom about the nature of semiconductors. Semiconductors, which block or carry electrical current depending on the voltage to which they are exposed, typically consist of crystals in which molecules line up in ordered ranks. But in the late 1950s Mr. Ovshinsky became convinced that less regimented materials could also act as semiconductors.

He argued that products using these so-called amorphous, or disordered, materials could be much cheaper to make than those built from the workhorse compounds of the electronics industry, like silicon crystals.

His ideas drew only scorn and skepticism at first. He was an unknown inventor with unconventional ideas, a man without a college education who made his living designing automation equipment for the automobile industry in Detroit, far from the hotbeds of electronics research like Silicon Valley and Boston.

But Mr. Ovshinsky prevailed. Industry eventually credited him for the principle that small quantities or thin films of amorphous materials exposed to a charge can instantly reorganize their structures into semicrystalline forms capable of carrying significant current.

With a bit of a promotional twist, he christened the field “ovonics.”

In 1960, he and his second wife, the former Iris L. Miroy, founded Energy Conversion Laboratories in Rochester Hills, Mich., to develop practical products from the discovery. It was renamed Energy Conversion Devices four years later.

Energy Conversion Devices and its subsidiaries, spinoff companies and licensees began translating Mr. Ovshinsky’s insights into mechanical, electronic and energy devices, among them solar-powered calculators. His nickel-metal battery is used to power hybrid cars and portable electronics, among other things.

He holds patents relating to rewritable optical discs, flat-panel displays and electronic-memory technology. His thin-film solar cells are produced in sheets “by the mile,” as he once put it.

The Ovshinskys were champions of alternative energy and sounded early alarms about the industrial world’s insatiable demand for oil, saying it could lead to resource wars and climate change. More than 50 years ago, Mr. Ovshinsky began promoting hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to the internal-combustion engine.

In his so-called hydrogen loop, water is converted to stored hydrogen through solar-powered electrolysis, and from hydrogen back to water, generating electricity through a fuel cell. Automotive companies have begun producing hydrogen-based demonstration models.

Mr. Ovshinsky’s promotional flair helped Energy Conversion Devices attract investors, including giants like Standard Oil, Texaco, Chevron, Canon, 3M, Intel and General Motors. They collectively invested hundreds of millions of dollars in his ventures, some of which failed.

Mr. Ovshinsky’s business maneuvers came to be considered every bit as creative and extraordinary as his inventions. Energy Conversion Devices lost money decade after decade, surviving by periodically selling control of patents, rights to royalties from them or new stock.

In all Mr. Ovshinsky was granted well over 400 patents, and wrote legions of scientific articles.   Not bad for a man whose formal education ended with a high school degree.

Although his early life was spent outside Michigan, he moved to Detroit in 1951 to work as director of research at the Hupp Motor Company (where he invented electric power steering) and ended up spending the rest of his life in Michigan.

Because of his independent and radical contributions to science, he has been compared with Einstein. Because of his many inventions in digital memory, solar energy, battery technology, optical media, and solid hydrogen storage, and his hundreds of basic scientific patents, he has often been compared with Thomas Edison. In the area of alternatives to fossil fuel, his pioneering work has caused many writers to refer to him as “the modern world’s most important energy visionary.”

Ironically, he was more famous internationally than in Michigan.  PBS’s NOVA program did a major TV documentary called “Japan’s American Genius.”  The Economist magazine called him the Edison of our age, but I.I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate, scoffed.  He was no Edison, he said, but something better.  “He’s an Ovshinsky, and he’s brilliant,” he said. 

Not long before he died, some told the inventor that if he had moved to Silicon Valley he would have been a billionaire.  “I never had any intention of becoming a billionaire,” he said.  Stan Ovshinsky preferred Detroit, the “declining capital of the industrial age,” even though that made for a harder struggle.

“Without struggle, we can’t change the world,” he said.

No wonder Jack Lessenberry called him “The Greatest Michigan Mind You Never Heard Of“.

Sources:

Stanford R. Ovshinsky wikipedia entry

Barnaby J. Feder, “Stanford R. Ovshinsky Dies at 89, a Self-Taught Maverick in Electronics“, New York Times, October 18, 2012.

“The Edison of our Age?” The Economist, December 2, 2006, pp. 33–34.

Jack Lessenberry, “The Greatest Michigan Mind You Never Heard Of“, Dome, May 25, 2018.

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow: The Life and Inventions of Stanford R. Ovshinsky, by  Peter Garrett and Lillian Hoddeson.  MIT Press, 2018.

 

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