Stanford Ovshinsky Might Be the Most Prolific Inventor You’ve Never Heard Of
A new book calls attention to the 20th-century genius with more than 400 patents to his name
It’s hard to look around in today’s technology-driven world and not see something that exists because of inventor Stanford R. Ovshinsky. When you turn your flat-screen TV on with the click of a remote, when a Prius silently drives past, when you see solar panels powering a home, when you save a photo on your smartphone, you have Ovshinsky, in part, to thank.
Ovshinsky is arguably one of the greatest thinkers and inventors you’ve never heard of. He’s been called his generation’s Thomas Edison and his brilliance compared to that of Albert Einstein. He was ahead of his time.
Born in 1922 in Akron, Ohio, to Jewish parents who emigrated from Eastern Europe, he only completed a high school education and initially pursued a career as a machinist in a factory that made molds for car tires. After leaving to start his own company, Energy Conversion Devices in 1960 in Detroit, Michigan, his inventions drew widespread attention in the scientific community. He befriended Nobel Prize winners, such as I.I. Rabi and Nevill Mott, and made connections in the business world. Before he passed away in 2012 at age 89, the inventor held more than 400 patents.
In a time when gigantic, boxy, cathode ray tube television sets sat in the corners of American living rooms, Ovshinsky envisioned a flattened TV set you could hang on the wall like a picture and went on to invent technology [U.S. Patent No. 3,271,591], in 1966, that turns thin panels of glass into semiconductors that spark pixels in our screens to this day. That same patented technology has since been applied to smartphone microchips that store our data and might usher in a new chapter of information storage. While coal mining reigned supreme, Ovshinsky was pondering ways to harness power from the sun and in 1979 began streamlining the mass production of inexpensive solar panels [U.S. Patent No. 4,519,339]. Then as gas-guzzling roadsters grew more and more popular, Ovshinsky told researchers in one of his labs that the experimental battery they presented him in a beaker would one day power an energy-efficient car. That was in 1982 and his nickel-metal hydride battery [U.S. Patent No. 4,623,597] has powered electric and hybrid vehicles since the early 2000s.
He was a man who saw tomorrow.
That's precisely the title of a new biographical memoir about his life’s work, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow: The Life and Inventions of Stanford R. Ovshinsky, written by Lillian Hoddeson and Peter Garrett.
Smithsonian.com spoke with Hoddeson and Garrett about Ovshinsky’s life, work and worldview.
Lillian, you’ve written about dozens of scientists, physicists and inventors. You have a background in physics yourself. What made Stan an interesting subject for a biography?
Lillian Hoddeson: When my previous book came out, I was teaching at the University of Illinois. The history department chairman, Peter Fritzsche, gave the book to his father who turned out to be, Hellmut Fritzsche, a physicist who worked with Stan for many years. Hellmut contacted me and suggested that my next book be a biography of Stan Ovshinsky. In the fall of 2005, I first visited Stan's company ECD, Energy Conversion Devices, in a suburb of Detroit. I was completely fired up by what I saw, especially the impressive variety of inventive work that was going on there. I was simply blown away by the completely hydrogen-powered Prius that Stan insisted I drive. It was completely silent, used green energy and water vapor was coming out of the exhaust.
I was also impressed by Stan personally and his wife Iris Ovshinsky, and I wanted to learn more about them, even though the work required learning about many topics that I had never worked on before or studied in any depth. I started doing a few interviews with him and about the third time I visited them, in the summer of 2006, I happened to be present at the sudden death of Iris while she was swimming. I kind of became an honorary member of the family, and I decided that I would write the biography.
Ovshinsky’s interests were so wide-ranging, and yet he was high-achieving in everything he did. In what ways did his interests inform one another?
LH: Stan transformed from his early career as a machinist and a toolmaker. The story goes: he got interested in machines and materials in part by being taken along with his father who was a scrap metal collector to many of the machine shops in Akron, a big industrial city. And he decides to become a machinist and a toolmaker when he graduates high school, but being the kind of thinker that he was, he was always motivated to improve the machines he was working with and eventually he realized he wanted to be an inventor.
His first significant invention was this huge heavy lathe—that he named after his father, the Benjamin Lathe. It was an automated lathe that could machine metal much faster than other lathes. He was interested especially in automation. Later, he studied cybernetics, which is an interdisciplinary way to learn through both communication and controls about animals and machines.
Peter Garrett: His different interests definitely informed each other. He would say later in life when he was trying to explain how he came up with new ideas that he was always thinking about four or five different problems at the same time. He had an incredible capacity for multi-tasking. They would feed on each other and eventually he would make a connection; he would see analogies or make connections that other people weren't seeing and come up with something new.
It seems like there’s hardly an area of our modern world that Stan didn’t touch. Can you talk about the scope of his inventions?
PG: It’s certainly easier for me to get a handle on the scope of his work by looking at the interconnectivity of the discoveries. The crucial discovery, which wasn't just an invention but a scientific breakthrough, was when he created what is now called the Ovshinsky effect, a technique that uses increasing voltage currents to turn noncrystalline [or amorphous and disordered] materials—like thin glassy films, for example—from insulators to conductors and back again at the flip of a switch. For instance, our flat panel TV displays depend on those amorphous semiconductors because unlike crystal transistors you can take this material and make it into very large sheets, so that your screen has a whole thin sheet of amorphous material covered with little transistors, each one of which are switching or interacting with liquid crystals and turning pixels on and off.
Before this discovery it was believed that only crystalline materials could do this. That’s what was used to create micro-electronic devices like the transistor. People in the field of solid state physics and in the business of making those devices all believed that you had to use crystals.
What Stan did had not been thought possible. It created quite a stir when he published his results both in The New York Times and Physical Review Letters in November 1968. There were a lot of people who were very upset about it, particularly because he was completely self-educated. He had no scientific training.
The nickel-metal hydride battery, which came when Stan had some of his scientists at ECD working on hydrogen storage, made possible the hydrogen car that Lillian was talking about before.
LH: There's this dramatic moment that we tell about in the book when these researchers first make this nickel-metal hydride battery in a beaker. They bring it to Stan and he calls a meeting of staff to demonstrate it. There's this little beaker battery—this crude experimental demonstration—and he says to the group, ‘Someday that will power an electric car.’
And they didn't believe him but eventually it did.
PG: The reason we call the book The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is because he did look very far ahead in imagining the possible developments and implications of his discoveries, and he made predictions that people thought were completely off the wall.
When he was interviewed for The New York Times story about the discovery of the Ovshinsky effect, the threshold switch, the reporter asked him, ‘What might this be good for?’ And one of the things he said was, ‘Well you could make a TV set that you could hang on your wall like a picture.’
That was in 1968 when people used cathode ray tube TVs, and people in electronics thought it was absolutely ridiculous.
You say that Ovshinsky's discovery of phase-change memory will have the most impact on the world. Can you explain what this technology is and how it stands to affect our future?
LH: Phase-change memory is an offshoot of Ovshinsky’s threshold switch in which either an electrical or laser pulse changes the amorphous chalcogenide material to crystalline; it remains in that state until a stronger pulse changes it back. This bistable feature—meaning its pulse remains stable in more than one state—allows the switch to store information and so act as a nonvolatile electronic or optical memory.
Compared to the currently predominant silicon flash memory, phase-change memory is roughly a hundred times faster, requires less power, and can be cycled many more times. As manufacturers work to increase the speed and storage capacity of flash memory chips by scaling them down, they will eventually reach a limit. Chalcogenide memory does not have that limitation and because of its lower power requirements actually works better as it scales down.
Because computer technology plays such a huge role in our lives, and because Ovshinsky’s phase-change memory will both allow today’s computers to work better and allow designers to create more advanced computer architectures in the future, it seems likely to have an increasing impact.
The late John Ross, who was a pioneering chemist at Stanford, once said, “Stan is a genius, but he’s not a scientist.” He almost had a sense of intuition in a way that he himself describes using words like “feeling” or knowing what these inanimate particles that make up our very being “want.” Can you try to expand on that quality?
PG: In terms of him saying, "I see the atoms and molecules and I know what they want to do," it's because he was brilliant. He read a lot across all sorts of areas, and he read very quickly and retained everything.
People would talk about watching him read and he would just be turning the pages like the way you or I would be skimming it. He would just recall everything out of it, and he could go back to the book years later and find the exact page that he wanted to cite. That kind of store of information was one thing.
Another was because he didn't have the formal training that a physicist would have, he didn't have the mathematical techniques for working out his ideas using calculations. He relied very much on visualizing and so that's where you get that “feeling for atoms.” He used his intelligence, but he turned it into visual images that gave him intuition about what you can accomplish with combining different elements.
LH: Another approach that Stan used, was that he used analogies between phenomena in different areas.
PG: He became interested in neurophysiology for a period, and he actually contributed to the field doing research for a while. But he thought of nerve cells as being like switches, and then he took it a step further. He actually constructed a switch that worked the way he understood nerve cells did and created an entirely new kind of switch. That was an important step toward discovering the Ovshinsky effect.
Although he was not a trained scientist, he hired a lot of very smart scientists to work with him on his research and to help explain his work in ways that would have been hard for him to do.
Tell us a bit about the ways in which Stan—and his second wife, Iris’s—worldview came to impact his inventions?
PG: It's important to include the idea that a lot of his work was motivated by social and political ideals. All of these alternative energy devices—the batteries, solar panels or hydrogen powered car—those were all ways of pursuing a goal that he and Iris identified when they founded their company, which was to try to replace fossil fuels.
This was another way in which he saw tomorrow. He anticipated some of the problems that we are now experiencing, like global warming. Having that kind of idealistic social vision was just as important to him as making the inventions or pursuing his discoveries—and it was very important in how they ran the company.
They wanted to make ECD an embodiment of their social ideals, which meant very generous benefits and also supporting individual development—a lot of educational benefits for the employees, a lot of things that created a feeling of solidarity and commitment to the goals that Stan wanted to pursue.
He wasn’t just a brilliant genius, he was really trying to make life better for people. When he talked about his background as a socialist, it was in a different sense than what a lot of us have of socialism as being a philosophy that the government should provide services or that you should nationalize industries—that didn't interest him at all. He thought of socialism as a way of making life better for people, and he was really dedicated to that and he did succeed in that to some extent.
LH: He didn't really care about the money making except insofar that he needed the money to support the research that he wanted to do.
Let’s talk about some of the pushback he faced in his field. He was highly praised and recognized in his field, but also considered an outsider. How did those competing perceptions affect him?
LH: It hurt him a great deal personally. They didn't want to accept him. Some of them felt a bit envious that they didn't come up with the things that he did.
PG: He wasn’t intentionally an oppositional figure. He wanted to be accepted, he loved science. And many of the most gifted scientists appreciated him. Several Nobel Laureates, who would come to visit just because they wanted to talk to him, recognized what an original creative mind he was.
LH: People like I.I. Rabi.
PG: Rabi who won his Nobel Prize much earlier and was a senior statesman in the scientific establishment, really hit it off with Stan and more than once called him a genius.
But on the other hand, there were people who were suspicious of him, who thought he was a charlatan. They disliked the way that he publicized his work, which for a scientist at the time would have been considered very unprofessional, getting your discovery on the front page of The New York Times.
When he was working on his neurological research at Wayne University in Detroit, he said how wonderful it was that the other scientists working there accepted him and were interested in his research. He said, ‘I thought that's how science was,’ that if you made a contribution, people appreciated you and accepted you. The hostile reaction he got when he announced his discovery of the Ovshinsky switch certainly surprised and caused him dismay.
Lots of people call Stan “this generation’s Einstein or Edison.” What qualities might be used to describe the next Stan Ovshinsky?
PG: We have that tribute from Berkeley economist Harley Shaiken, who was a mentee of Stan’s, at the end of the book saying, “He was the last of his kind,” and in a way he was. He was a product of his early upbringing and that historical moment. The other thing about him that makes this question very hard to answer is that ordinarily there might be obvious qualities that educators should try to encourage, but what Stan shows is you can’t create someone like that. There will be brilliant, unique figures in the future, but their uniqueness makes them unpredictable.
That's why people who have been suggested as comparisons—Steve Jobs or Elon Musk— really aren’t good comparisons.
It would be interesting to me, in the future when some other completely unforeseen, brilliant, creative person comes along, whether other people will say he’s another Ovshinsky.
LH: Stan was kind of a transitional figure.
PG: His career covered the transition from the industrial age to the information age. So if you think about the question of someone like Stan coming up in the future, that might be a clue—someone who is not just working within the framework of our own time—however, we understand that—but is really seeing tomorrow and helping make this transition into a different era, which by definition is something we can't really imagine until it emerges.