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The man who saw tomorrow

May 18, 2018

Credit European Patent Office European Inventor Award

Stan Ovshinsky barely had a high school education, and part of him was always more at home in machine shops like the one where began working when he got out of high school.

“For me, manufacturing has always had glamour to it,” he said.

Yet he is remembered as a scientist who made breakthroughs that took your breath away: The first workable solar cells, rewritable CDs and DVD’s, the nickel-metal-hydride battery that powers your laptop.

For much of his career, he was seen by the press in Detroit as a nut. They ridiculed him in the 1960s when he announced that someday we’d watch television on a flat screen on a wall.

The scientific community saw him as a crank, and they were especially incensed when he announced that their entire theory of how devices conduct electricity was wrong — that amorphous materials worked better than solid, crystal ones.

Yet Stan Ovshinsky was right. Look up the word “ovonics” in any dictionary, the name he gave to the science he invented. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist I.I. Rabi got who he was.

“Stan is a genuine genius,” said Rabi, who used to make pilgrimages to Ovshinsky’s laboratories in Detroit. “His only problem is that they don’t like him in the Ivy League because he doesn’t have a degree.” Rabi, and several other Nobel laureates, couldn’t have cared less.

This morning, there was a book launch party in a Detroit suburb to celebrate the publication of the first full-length biography of the inventor, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, by two University of Illinois professors, Lillian Hoddeson and Peter Garrett.

The book is comprehensive and well-written, and does the best it can to capture the personality of a man whom I knew, and who was beyond category.

Though he was born in tough, working-class Akron, Ovshinsky considered Detroit his home. When another scientist told him he’d have been a billionaire had he moved to Silicon Valley, he said, “I never had any intention of becoming a billionaire.”

He wanted to work in Detroit, which as the authors say, he knew was “the declining capital of the industrial age,” and try to transform it, as much of a struggle as that might be.

“Where else do you struggle? And without struggle, how do you change the world?” Once, at his dinner table, I asked Stan how he coped emotionally when he was being attacked and vilified, often unfairly. He said something like “Everyone who does anything controversial has to expect it.”

He didn’t crumble, but he didn’t let anyone tell him how to be. He was, unlike many scientists, proudly progressive. His greatest hero was Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs.

But he also had a long friendship with a man liberals loved to hate: Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. Ovshinsky probably tried to do too many things, including trying to be both a businessman and a scientist. He lost the company he had founded in a corporate power play, and in his 80s, began another. Before he died six years ago, The Economist magazine called him our modern Edison. One of his Nobel Prize winning friends disagreed.

“He’s an Ovshinsky,” he said, meaning that as the greatest compliment of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.