Saturday, October 20, 2012

Robert Ovshinsky – A Man No One Has Ever Heard of

But Should Have

Here is a pretty commonplace biography of a  young man.

Stanford Robert Ovshinsky was born on Nov. 24, 1922, in Akron, Ohio, the son of Benjamin and Bertha Munitz Ovshinsky. His father was an immigrant from Lithuania who became a scrap metal dealer. His contacts got young Stan an apprenticeship as a lathe operator with a motor manufacturer while still in high school.

When Mr. Ovshinsky’s asthma excluded him from military service, he married Norma Rifkin, his childhood sweetheart, and moved to Phoenix to work in a Goodyear aircraft factory. He returned to Akron and set up his own machine and lathe manufacturing shop in 1946. 

Okay, so what’s the big deal?  Well there is this.

Energy Conversion Devices
Stanford R. Ovshinsky and
 Iris M. Ovshinsky founded 
Energy Conversion Laboratories in 1960.
Stanford R. Ovshinsky, 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.

And here’s more

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.

No, we have no idea what any of that means, except that this self-educated man invented some of the most useful things in electronics that have ever been invented.

And no, he did not become rich, his businesses either lost money or failed.

In 1989, when the company was completing the 29th of what would become a string of 35 years of losses, Forbes described it as “a high-tech Roach Motel” where “the money goes in but it never comes out.”

But monetary success may not have been his goal.

The practical applications of his ideas never fully diverted Mr. Ovshinsky from his passion for basic materials research. He continued to help write scientific papers and cultivated relationships with luminaries like Nevill F. Mott, who won the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physics for explaining the underlying behavior of amorphous materials.

But that seemed ok with Mr. Ovshinsky.  And besides, all of the rest of us live richer lives because of him. 

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