Stanford Ovshinsky, innovative designer of energy-conversion devices, dies at 89

October 20, 2012

Stanford Ovshinsky, a self-taught inventor whose innovations have been incorporated in many high-tech developments, from flat-screen televisions to laptop computers, died Oct. 17 at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He was 89.

He had prostate cancer, his son told the Associated Press.

Mr. Ovshinsky began his career as a machinist and, without a college education, developed a reputation as an original thinker who designed solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells, semiconductors and rewritable compact discs long before they reached the mainstream market.

He devised the term “ovonics,” combing his own name and “electronics,” to describe the technology behind the development of what he called “nondepletable, nonpolluting energy sources.” His aim was to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels by relying on solar power and hydrogen as energy sources.

In 1999, Time magazine included Mr. Ovshinsky among its “Heroes for the Planet,” and the Economist magazine named him to a “league of genius inventors.”


Stanford Ovshinsky, center, co-founder of Energy Conversion Devices Inc. with his second wife Iris, right, appeared with U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham at a news conference in Rochester Hills, Mich., in 2002. Ovshinsky, 89, died Oct. 17 at his home from complications of prostate cancer. (KATHLEEN WAYT/AP)

He had more than 200 patents, but the company he founded in 1960, Energy Conversion Devices, lost money for decades. For years, he was seen as as a quixotic genius who couldn’t translate his ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace.

“Ovshinsky has created things that aren’t manufacturable,” a Wall Street analyst complained to Forbes magazine in 1980. “After 20 years, one gets impatient. Where is the product, and where is the profit?”

Yet Mr. Ovshinsky’s scientific breakthroughs, coupled with his infectious enthusiasm, kept major industrial giants knocking on his door, checks in hand, betting millions of dollars that his inventions would transform everything from automotive design to home entertainment.

As early as the 1950s, Mr. Ovshinsky was proposing hydrogen-based fuel cells as an alternative to the internal combustion engine. He designed the first nickel-hydride batteries, which are now used in hybrid automobiles.

Much of Mr. Ovshinsky’s work was devoted to developing photovoltaic solar panels, which could convert sunlight to electricity. He foresaw a time when shingles could double as rooftop solar panels.

He also worked extensively on amorphous semiconductor technology, in which the materials lacked a crystalline atomic structure. He developed a process for applying a microscopically thin layer of amorphous material on sheets of plastic or stainless steel, which later spurred the development of rewritable computer discs and digital video discs, or DVDs.

Mr. Ovshinsky never attended college and was not affiliated with a major institution or think tank. As a result, many of his ideas were not taken seriously at first.

His developments gained acceptance in Japan before they did in the United States, leading the PBS science series Nova to devote a program to him in 1987 called “Japan’s American Genius.”

“We’ve tried for years to get American companies interested in our work, but we haven’t had much luck until recently,” Mr. Ovshinsky told The Washington Post in 1986. “Once the Japanese starting coming aboard, the Americans began to take a look.”

Mr. Ovshinsky believed that many U.S. energy and auto companies found him a threat to their technologies and their bottom lines.

“Of course the oil companies are not very happy,” he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1997. “And the automotive companies would like to postpone the day of change as long as they can.

“I don’t relish the role of being a prophet in the wilderness. But I recognize that we’re agents of change and change is difficult.”

Stanford Robert Ovshinsky was born Nov. 24, 1922, in Akron, Ohio. His Lithuanian-born father was an opera-loving scrap dealer who had once acted in the Yiddish theater.

Mr. Ovshinsky was a machinist in his youth and received his first patent at 24, for an automated lathe design.

He moved to Detroit in 1952 to work as research director for an auto company before establishing a company with his second wife, Iris Miroy Dibner, a PhD biochemist. She died in 2006.

His first marriage, to Norma Rifkin Ovshinsky, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his third wife, Rosa Young; three sons from his first marriage; four stepchildren; a brother; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Ovshinsky led his company through changing fortunes for years, eventually bringing on a former chairman of General Motors, Robert Stempel, to manage the business. He was forced out of the business in 2007 but moved on to form a new company and continued to work on new innovations in energy and semiconductor design until his death.

“All the properties we find are in the atoms, if you know how to find them,” he told The Post in 1986. “I think I know the atoms like friends. I really visualize them. Sometimes I feel the atoms talk to me.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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