Recognized Everywhere But Here
October 26, 2012
BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MI — Stan Ovshinsky—probably Michigan’s greatest genius of the last century—died last week, a month short of his 90th birthday after a battle with prostate cancer. Oddly, he was less famous in his home state than almost anywhere else on the planet. His family arranged for an early 90th birthday party for him over Labor Day weekend. Famous scientists flew to Michigan from as far away as Tokyo to attend. UAW President Bob King and U.S. Senator Carl Levin delayed their flights to the Democratic National Convention to be here.
Small wonder: This was the man who invented the nickel-metal-hydride battery that powers most laptops; was the driving force behind flat-screen LCD TV’s and computer screens, solar energy panels, electric car technology and hydrogen fuel cells. “Hydrogen is the automotive fuel of the future,” he told me earlier this year. “The power of the sun; we’ll never run out.” All that remained was to make it affordable.
Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, came to consult with him. So did physicist I.I. Rabi and a host of Nobel Prize winners. Ovshinsky was granted more than a thousand patents worldwide. Time Magazine called him, “a hero for the planet.” The Economist called him, “the Edison of our age.” What makes all of this especially astounding is that not only did Ovshinsky not have a doctorate, but he hadn’t even finished high school and only later earned a GED. He didn’t care about titles. “Call me Stan,” he told everybody.
Back in 1960, he and his beloved second wife Iris scraped together some savings and started a business called Energy Conversion Devices (ECD). Stan soon created a stir by asserting that everything science knew about semiconductors was wrong. The scientific establishment ignored him, or wrote him off with scathing contempt. Finally, a renowned physicist at MIT tested his theory and, stunned, proclaimed he was right. Other inventions followed.
Hellmut Fritzsche, then head of the physics department at the University of Chicago, wasn’t buying it. Skeptical, he came to visit ECD in the mid-1960s. He left a Vice-President of the company. Last month, the now-retired professor Fritzsche told an audience gathered at the Ovshinsky home that, “I‘ve met a lot of Nobel Prize winners. Stan Ovshinsky is the only true genius I’ve ever met.” President George W. Bush even came to visit one of the many companies he founded in 2006, looked at the solar technology and, in awe, stated, “This is real,” as he stood for pictures with Stan and Iris.
But closer to home, the inventor was seen less as a genius than an erratic businessman. An effective salesman, Ovshinsky was remarkably skilled at getting money men to invest in ECD. The company poured out a steady stream of tantalizing inventions, but it seldom actually made money. Investors complained there was a lack of focus: “Once he gets something going, he gets more interested in working on his next tomato slicer.”
Things got somewhat better after former General Motors Chairman Bob Stempel joined ECD. But, in 2007, the Board revolted and ousted Ovshinsky. Stempel retired. In Ovshinsky’s place, the Board then installed a former helicopter pilot who attempted to concentrate only on solar roofing materials. That worked for awhile, but when the recession hit ECD was destroyed.
Despite being ousted, Ovshinsky was still financially secure from the sale and licensing of his patents. He was urged to write his memoirs. Instead, at 85, he founded two new companies. Earlier this year over dinner, he told me his goal was to make solar cells so efficient that using them would be cheaper than using electricity generated from burning coal. “And I am convinced I can get there.”
What few knew about him was that his purpose was really political: He wanted to make this a better world for everyone. If President Bush had bothered to research Ovshinsky’s politics before visiting his lab, he might have thought twice about coming. Stan Ovshinsky cut his teeth in his native Akron as a union organizer, when that was a dangerous thing. He was the son of a scrap metal dealer who emigrated from Lithuania. He was a member of about every civil rights group there was. Closest to his heart was a century-old secular Jewish social justice group called Workman’s Circle. To the surprise of many, he had his body buried in the Workman’s Circle Cemetery in his native Akron.
Once, after a dinner in his home, I asked who his biggest hero was. I expected it would be one of the great figures of science. Not even close. He took a book off a shelf about Eugene Debs, the great early American Socialist leader, and showed me his quote:
“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it.” Stan Ovshinsky nodded, “I agree with that.”
After he died, his son, filmmaker Harvey Ovshinsky, said that during his final days his father would occasionally rouse himself and say, “I’m still trying to figure it out.” Harvey then added, “Knowing Stan, he may have.”