Stanford R. Ovshinsky (1922 - 2012)

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Nicknames: "Stan"
Birthdate:
Birthplace: Akron, OH, USA
Death: Died in Bloomfield Hills, Oakland, Michigan, United States
Managed by: Stephen Thomas
Last Updated:
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About Stanford R. Ovshinsky

Stanford Robert Ovshinsky (November 24, 1922 – October 17, 2012) was a prolific American inventor and scientist who had been granted well over 400 patents over fifty years, mostly in the areas of energy and information. Many of his inventions have had wide ranging applications. Among the most prominent are: an environmentally friendly nickel-metal hydride battery, which has been widely used in laptop computers, digital cameras, cell phones, and electric and hybrid cars; continuous web multi-junction flexible thin-film solar energy laminates and panels; flat screen liquid crystal displays; rewritable CD and DVD discs; hydrogen fuel cells; and nonvolatile phase-change memory. Ovshinsky opened the scientific field of amorphous and disordered materials in the course of his research in the 1940s and 50s in neurophysiology, neural disease, the nature of intelligence in mammals and machines, and cybernetics. Amorphous silicon semiconductors have become the basis of many technologies and industries. Ovshinsky is also distinguished in being self-taught, without formal college or graduate training. Throughout his life, his love for science and his social convictions were the primary engines for his inventive work.

In 1960, Ovshinsky and his soon-to-be second wife, Iris Dibner, founded Energy Conversion Laboratory in a storefront in Detroit, dedicating the laboratory to the solution of important societal problems using science and technology. Focusing on the critical areas of energy and information, their new company, reconstituted in 1964 as Energy Conversion Devices (ECD), went on to become a forefront invention and development laboratory whose products have built new industries, many of them aimed at making fossil fuel obsolete. ECD continues (through joint ventures and license partners) to be a leading solar energy and battery production firm.

Roughly a year after Iris Ovshinsky's death in August 2006, Ovshinsky left ECD and established a new company, Ovshinsky Innovation LLC, devoted to developing the scientific basis for highly innovative and revolutionary energy and information technologies. In October 2007 he married Rosa Young, a physicist who had worked at ECD on numerous energy technologies including a hydrogen-powered hybrid car and on Ovshinsky’s vision of a hydrogen-based economy.

Early life

Ovshinsky was born and grew up in the industrial town of Akron, Ohio, then at the center of the American rubber industry. The elder son of working-class Jewish immigrant parents who left Eastern Europe around 1905—Benjamin Ovshinsky from Lithuania and Bertha Munitz from what is now Belarus—Ovshinsky became active in social activities at an early age during the Great Depression. His lifelong concern to better the lives of workers and minorities, as well as to advance culture and the interests of industry, derive largely from his father, who was a generous, liberal, and highly cultured activist. With his horse and wagon, and later his truck, Ben Ovshinsky made his living collecting scrap metal from factories and foundries. Based on his father's example, and on teachings offered by the Akron Workmen's Circle, an organization mainly of Jewish immigrants who believed in social justice, Stan Ovshinsky developed a deep commitment to social values, including labor rights, civil rights, and civil liberties.

Work through the 1950s

Work as a machinist and the Benjamin Center Drive

Before graduating from high school in June 1941, Ovshinsky worked as a tool maker and machinist in various local shops affiliated with the rubber industry. During the Second World War, he and his bride, Norma Rifkin, moved to Arizona, where Ovshinsky worked for a time in the tool room of a Goodyear plant in Litchfield, not far from Phoenix. Returning to Akron shortly before the end of the war, Ovshinsky eventually established his own machine company, Stanford Roberts, initially in a barn. There he developed and patented his first invention, the Benjamin Center Drive, named after his father. This unique automatic high-speed center drive lathe had many important uses. After Ovshinsky sold his company to the New Britain Machine Company in Connecticut, it was used to help solve the national crisis of making artillery shells in large enough volume for wartime needs during the Korean War. Meanwhile Ovshinsky continued to develop his growing interest in human and machine intelligence, avidly studying the research literature on neurophysiology, neurological disease, and cybernetics, corresponding briefly with Norbert Wiener.

Intelligent machines

In 1951, Ovshinsky accepted an offer to move to Detroit and work in the automotive industry as the director of research at the Hupp Motor Company. Continuing his work on intelligent machines, he invented electric power steering, but Hupp’s president was opposed to completing the arrangements with General Motors to utilize the product. Not long after that, Stan and his younger brother Herb Ovshinsky, a talented mechanical engineer, established a small company called General Automation in a Detroit storefront. There, Stan continued his study of intelligent machines and embarked on early research and development of various energy and information technologies. At the same time, he began studying neurophysiology and neurological diseases. On the basis of his early writings about nerve impulses and the nature of intelligence, he was invited by Wayne Medical School in June 1955 to participate in pioneering experimental research on the mammalian cerebellum.

The Ovitron

By the late 1950s, working at General Automation, Ovshinsky brought together these disparate studies in an invention. Crossing scientific disciplines that academics traditionally hold separate, including neurophysiology and cybernetics, Stan invented, and Herb Ovshinsky helped build, a mechanical model of a nerve cell – an amorphous thin-film switch they called the Ovitron. Stan patented the device and the brothers disclosed it publicly in 1959 in New York City. In an attempt to model the learning ability of nerve cells, which Stan recognized as deriving from the plasticity of the cell's membrane, he drew on his knowledge of surfaces and materials to fashion very thin layers of amorphous material, thus pioneering the use of nanostructures. He created these layers by combining elements, especially from the Group 16 elements under oxygen, known as chalcogenides, including sulphur, selenium, and tellurium. He would continue to work with chalcogenides in his inventions for decades to come.

Work from 1960

Energy Conversion Laboratory

On January 1, 1960, Ovshinsky and Iris Miroy Dibner, whom he married soon after his divorce from Norma Rifkin, founded Energy Conversion Laboratory to develop his inventions in the interest of solving societal problems, especially those they identified in the areas of information and energy (e.g. pollution and wars over oil). Iris had a BA in zoology from Swarthmore College, an MS in biology from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in biochemistry from Boston University. Continuing to work on his atomically designed chalcogenide materials, which Ovshinsky realized offer unique electronic physical mechanisms, he utilized chain structures, cross links, polymeric concepts, and divalent structural bonding with a huge number of unbounded lone pairs to achieve what is now referred to as the Ovshinsky Effect – "an effect that turns special types of glassy, thin films into semiconductors upon application of low voltage." Applying this effect, he built new types of electronic and optical switches, including his Ovonic Phase Change Memory and his Threshold Switch. The former would become the basis of his subsequent inventions of rewritable CDs and DVDs and other new computer technologies including his cognitive computer. While others working in the crystalline field were building devices based on bulk materials, Ovshinsky’s work in the 1960s and later continued to be based on thin films and nanostructures. Recognizing the significance of his results, Ovshinsky applied for a patent on June 21, 1961 and, in 1962, made his first licensing pact on phase-change memory. Energy Conversion Devices

By the spring of 1963, the Ovshinskys had exhausted the savings with which they had initially funded ECL. Before seeking public funding, Stan wanted validation of the importance of his work from a well-recognized scientist. He telephoned Nobel Laureate John Bardeen, a co-inventor of the transistor and co-discoverer of the BCS theory of superconductivity. Bardeen immediately recognized the importance of Ovshinsky’s work but his schedule did not permit him to visit ECL for five months. Stan replied, "We’ll be broke by then." In his place, Bardeen sent Hellmut Fritzsche, a University of Chicago physicist. Fritzsche became very positive in his support of Ovshinsky’s work and helped attract other scientists to the Ovshinsky laboratory. As Fritzsche and Brian Schwartz later wrote, "There is a mysterious quality in Ovshinsky’s persona that attracts people into his sphere, builds life long friendships and awakens deep respect and devotion. Meeting him leaves each person with a deep impression of his superior intellect, his self confidence, his compassion to improve society combined with his certainty that his vision can be realized. His enthusiasm is contagious. In his presence, you feel how exciting it would be to join him in his endeavors." Among the many famous scientists who came regularly to ECL as friends or collaborators over the next years, were David Adler, Bardeen, Arthur Bienenstock, Morrel Cohen, Kenichi Fukui, William Lipscomb, Sir Nevill Mott, Linus Pauling, Isadore I. Rabi, Edward Teller, David Turnbull, Victor Weisskopf, and Robert R. Wilson. Some joined as consultants or as members of the Board of Directors. Meanwhile, the ECL community developed a uniquely productive, non-hierarchical, multicultural, international environment, reflecting Stan and Iris’ social values. In 1964, Stan and Iris changed the laboratory’s name to Energy Conversion Devices and moved the company to larger quarters in Troy, Michigan.

The company continued to develop electronic memory, batteries, and solar cells, reinvesting almost every penny of profit into the scientific study of a wide variety of problems, much of which later became the basis of lucrative industries, e.g., flat screen liquid crystal displays. In time, license fees to ECD began to grow, especially when amorphous silicon was used to make solar cells "by the mile," with an approach that originated from Ovshinsky's non-silver photographic film work. It led to the bold approach of using the first continuous web photovoltaic machine, designed and built under Stan’s direction by Herb Ovshinsky and a small group in the machine division. Generations of machines later resulted in sufficient money to reach Ovshinsky’s objective of building a 30 megawatt machine, rather than a 5 megawatt machine. Despite considerable skepticism toward the machine, it is now being cloned very successfully by ECD in new plants. ECD also saw profits from the nickel metal hydride batteries, which were important for a time in laptop computers and continue to be important in hybrid gas-electric automobiles.

Ovshinsky Innovation LLC

On August 16, 2006, Iris Ovshinsky, Stan's wife and partner of almost fifty years, died suddenly while swimming. A year later, Ovshinsky retired from ECD and launched a new company with Rosa Young, whom he later married. At Ovshinsky Innovation LLC, he continued his work on information and energy science, in strong relationships with colleagues and with industrial partners (for example, Ovonyx, which is developing phase-change semiconductor memory). Ovshinsky Innovation is currently focusing on a new kind of photovoltaic plant based on a new concept promising to lower the cost of photovoltaic energy sources below that of coal. This latter innovation would help realize his long-term goal over the last half-century to make fossil fuels obsolete while, at the same time, providing countless jobs in new industries. ECD is becoming recognized as the company that "developed solar roofing shingles in the 1980s," is making "the best available flexible thin film in the world," and is one of the first companies to work on building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) 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." Death

Ovshinsky died of prostate cancer on October 17, 2012, aged 89 in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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Stanford Ovshinsky's Timeline

1922
November 24, 1922
Akron, OH, USA
1942
August 9, 1942
Age 19
Akron, OH, USA
1959
November, 1959
Age 36
Toledo, OH, USA
1959
Age 36
2007
2007
Age 84
2012
October 17, 2012
Age 89
Bloomfield Hills, Oakland, Michigan, United States