He points to it today to explain why all his work, including his current focus on low-cost solar power, ultimately comes back to the primacy of the hydrogen atom. “We have a universe, and the first thing out of the Big Bang, which created it, was hydrogen, some helium, and a little bit of lithium. The hydrogen atom is what the whole periodic table is made out of. All matter that we know is, by far, hydrogen: a gas out in the universe that condenses into stars, and gives out energy by fusing hydrogen into helium. That creates the photon light particles that are absorbed onto photovoltaics to generate electricity.”
Decades before green became a modifier for technology, Ovshinsky and his second wife, Iris, opened the doors of Energy Conversion Laboratory in a small Detroit storefront. This was his third company in less than 10 years, but it would be his primary focus for the next half century. It was 1960, yet already the Ovshinskys dreamed of a world free of the wars and pollution caused by dependence on carbon-based fuels and petrochemical products. Iris had the academic training that Stan lacked, including a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Boston University. Working as a team, they created breakthroughs in energy generation, energy storage, information systems, and atomically engineered synthetic materials, now known as nanotechnology.
Indeed, when the clean-energy economy comes to pass, it will owe much to the holistic, practical, and dogged way Ovshinsky and his colleagues have pursued it over the decades. In Ovshinsky’s view, inexpensive solar power will make energy both plentiful and clean, eliminating the scarcity-driven conflicts and carbon-based pollution that have dogged humankind for centuries. Furthermore, he is confident that this transition, once begun, will occur rapidly, with the same relentless acceleration that has driven computers from mainframes to iPads in a scant four decades.
Ovshinsky has a touch of vanity — he clearly delights in the svelte figure he still cuts in a well-tailored suit, and he takes a similar pleasure in countering skeptics by displaying patents, peer-reviewed publications, and functioning prototypes that prove his concepts work. The wispy-haired gentleman with the modest manner awaits your interrogation with a kind smile, knowing that you may have tough questions, but that he has the answers and the data to back them up.
Birth of a New Science
Ovshinsky grew up in Akron, Ohio, the elder son of working-class Jewish immigrants who fled eastern Europe in 1905. His father, Benjamin Ovshinsky, made his living collecting metal scrap, but he was also a liberal social activist who introduced his son to the Akron Workmen’s Circle, an organization focused on labor rights, civil rights, and civil liberties. In later years, Stan Ovshinsky marched in civil rights protests and hosted activists in his home.
His first jobs were in machine shops around Akron, and his first inventions and first company, Stanford Roberts, were devoted to machine tools. The Benjamin Center Drive, an automated lathe he named for his father, was used to manufacture artillery shells for the Korean War effort. Accepting an offer from the Hupp Motorcar Company, he moved to Detroit in 1951, where he invented a technology for electric power steering. But Hupp’s president blocked negotiations with General Motors to complete the project, and it was shelved as the industry moved toward hydraulic power steering.
But Ovshinsky was already moving on, pursuing his fascination with human and machine intelligence. He read deeply in the research literature of neurophysiology, neurological disease, and cybernetics. Despite his lack of formal education, he came to comprehend and make strides in these seemingly disparate and arcane disciplines with the same intuitive and iconoclastic bent he brought to precision machine tools. His own publications in peer-reviewed journals confirmed his insight and innovation in these fields.