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Stanford R. Ovshinsky

October 22, 2012

There's a saying that scientists are identified only by the last place they received a degree. When you have a Ph.D. from Princeton (I write, Princeton, instead of Harvard, since I live in New Jersey), no one is really interested in where you were educated as an undergraduate.

There have been many obituaries published about Stanford R. Ovshinsky, who died last Wednesday at age 89.[1-9] All of these highlight his work on nickel-metal hydride batteries for electric vehicles, his last major project, but Ovshinsky did much more. I wrote about Ovshinsky in connection with his early work in phase-change memory materials in two previous articles (Nano Memory, September 30, 2010 and Phase Change Conductance, June 21, 2011).

Stanford R. OvshinskyStanford Ovshinsky, photographed in August 2005.

(Photo by Glenn Triest, courtesy of Style magazine, via Wikimedia Commons).

Stanford R. Ovshinsky (November 24, 1922 - October 17, 2012), the son of working-class Jewish parents who had emigrated from Eastern Europe, was not formally trained as a scientist. He was just high school educated, which was the usual stopping point for members of his generation. What likely prepared Ovshinsky for his subsequent career as a scientist/inventor are the practical and analytical skills he developed working as a machinist and tool maker.

His father, who had contacts through his scrap metal business, helped get him a job as a lathe operator while Stanford was still in high school.[1] After graduation, he continued such work around his native Akron, Ohio. Ovshinsky’s asthma exempted him from military service in World War II.[1] A small public library in Akron became his venue for scientific study, mostly in neurophysiology and cybernetics.[2]

In the mid-1940s, Ovshinsky started his own machine company, Stanford Roberts, also in Akron. In a similar tradition to Hewlett-Packard's founding in a garage, Ovshinsky's shop was initially established in a barn. At that time, Ovshinsky was awarded his first patent, for an improvement of machine lathes.[10] His device served in the automated production of artillery shells.[2] At age thirty, Ovshinsky became research director of Detroit automotive and defense supplier Hupp Corp.[2,4,7] At Hupp, he invented a power steering system.[11]

It's always said that you should love what you do, and it's often remarked that Ovshinsky had a true love of science. Much of his work was directed towards the betterment of society. Ovshinsky was granted more than 400 patents in his lifetime. These included a type of nickel-metal hydride battery, used in electrical vehicles and most often mentioned in his obituaries. Just as important are his inventions in amorphous silicon photovoltaic devices, materials for rewritable optical discs, hydrogen fuel cells and nonvolatile phase change memory.

His 1960s work on phase-change materials is what brought Ovshinsky to the attention of scientists. At that time, Ovshinsky discovered his eponymous "Ovonic Effect," the reversible transition between conductive and resistive states of chalcogenide glasses caused by application of a voltage. For a society just becoming enamored with computers, this effect had a huge potential, since it allowed high speed switching of very simple memory cells.

Figure 1 of US Patent No. 3,271,719, 'Resistance Switches And The Like,' by Stanford R. Ovshinsky, September 6, 1966.Figure 1 of US Patent No. 3,271,719, "Resistance Switches And The Like," by Stanford R. Ovshinsky, September 6, 1966.[12]

A companion patent, US Patent No. 3,271,591, issued on the same date, has a phenomenal number of citations.[13]

(Via Google Patents).

Chalcogenide glasses were found to have a highly resistive amorphous state and a low resistivity crystalline state. Application of a voltage will switch the material between these states, so it can be used to make computer memories. The switching occurs in a few tens of nanoseconds, which is slow by today's semiconductor memory standards, but there's ongoing research to reduce the switching time. The phase change can occur, also, by thermal cycling, which is how optical disks work.

Ovshinsky's problem in attempting to publish his discovery is that its mechanism wasn't understood at the time, and Ovshinsky wasn't a trained scientist. Fortunately, he amassed a cadre of practicing physicists who lobbied for publication in Physical Review Letters, the preeminent journal for rapid publication of novel discoveries in physics.[14] A coincident press conference promoted his invention as the "glass transistor."[2] Because of this foray into physics, Ovshinsky interacted with Nobel Laureates John Bardeen, co-inventor of the transistor, and Nevill F. Mott, who worked on the physics of amorphous materials.[1]

Although Ovshinsky was not formally educated as a scientist, his wife and business partner, Iris, had a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Boston University. In 1960, they parlayed the income from his early inventions to found Energy Conversion Devices (ECD).[3] ECD was much like other high-tech companies, losing money nearly every year, since Ovshinsky pumped most of its earnings into continued research projects. On 1989, Forbes named ECD "a high-tech Roach Motel" where "the money goes in but it never comes out," after its twenty-ninth year in the red.[1]

Ovshinsky remained at ECD until 2007, about a year after Iris' death, when his was forced out by its board of directors.[3] Ovshinsky continued with a new company, Ovshinsky Innovation LLC, which concentrated on energy systems and information technology. ECD sold the Ovonic Battery Company to BASF this year, and then filed for bankruptcy protection. ECD's assets are now being liquidated.[1]

Ovshinsky's nickel-metal hydride battery was used in both the Toyota Prius and GM's ill-fated EV1. [4,7] Nickel-metal hydride battery batteries have been supplanted by lithium-ion batteries.[4] His amorphous silicon solar cells have fared better, being produced in sheets "by the mile."[1]

In 1999, Time magazine named him a "Hero for the Planet."[4,7-8] In 2006, The Economist called him "the Edison of our age."[1,4-7] He has also been compared to Henry Ford.[7] Helmut Fritsche, former chairman of the University of Chicago physics department and an early Ovshinsky collaborator, called him "the only true genius I have ever met."[8] Fritzsche, remembering Ovshinky's work on phase-change materials, is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, "Nobody in the past 50-60 years has created such a revolution in science."[2]

In an interview for the Bulletin of Atomic the Scientists, as quoted in Forbes, Ovshinsky said this about retirement:
"I know this is contrary to what you read in the books: that mathematicians can't go beyond their 31st birthday, and scientists are done by about the time they are 40. Hell, I have more than 400 patents and 15 pending out there right now, and going for more. As long as I know I can do it, it is my civic responsibility to do it because of the character of the problems. Somebody has got to do it."[3]
A similar sentiment was expressed in another interview:
"[I'm] not after the plaudits or the prizes. We're after doing what we said we were going to do: make a difference and build a better world."[6]


  1. Barnaby J. Feder, "Stanford R. Ovshinsky Dies at 89, a Self-Taught Maverick in Electronics," The New York Times, October 18, 2012.
  2. Stephen Miller, "Stanford Ovshinsky 1922-2012," Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2012.
  3. Joann Muller, "Stanford Ovshinsky, Battery Genius Behind Smartphones And Hybrids, Dies At 89," Forbes, October 18, 2012.
  4. Paul Lienert, "'Genius' inventor Stanford Ovshinsky dies," Reuters, October 18, 2012.
  5. Stanford Ovshinsky, hybrid car battery inventor, dies, BBC News, October 19, 2012.
  6. John Gallagher, "Solar cell and battery innovator Stanford Ovshinsky dies at 89," Detroit Free Press, October 19, 2012.
  7. Steven Musil, "Stanford Ovshinsky, 'Edison of our age,' dies at 89," CNET, October 18, 2012.
  8. Jack Lessenberry, "Commentary: Farewell to Stan Ovshinsky," Michigan Radio, October 19, 2012.
  9. Zmarl Stanford Ovshinsky, wynalazca akumulatora NiMH, Onet Poland, October 19, 2012.
  10. S. Ovshinsky, "Rapidly Reciprocating Jaw Chuck with Fluid Pressure Actuator," US Patent No. 2,697,610, December 21, 1954.
  11. Stanford R. Ovshinsky, "Automatic Steering Control Apparatus," US Patent No. 2,674,331, April 6, 1954.
  12. Stanford R. Ovshinsky, "Resistance Switches And The Like," US Patent No. 3,271,719, September 6, 1966.
  13. Stanford R. Ovshinsky, "Symmetrical Current Controlling Device," US Patent No. 3,271,591, September 6, 1966.
  14. Stanford R. Ovshinsky, "Reversible Electrical Switching Phenomena in Disordered Structures," Physical Review Letters, vol. 21, no. 20 (1968), pp. 1450-1453.

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