Will Stanford R. Ovshinsky die rich?
Not long ago, Ovshinsky announced that he could convert solar energy into electricity at two-tenths of a cent per kilowatt-hour or anywhere from 20 to 40 times less than you and I pay for it retail from the power company.
Ovshinsky isn't a cashew or any other type of nut, although he says, "I'm tired of being looked upon as some kind of eccentric who operates outside the establishment circle."
Part of the Ovshinsky's problem is that he has the ability but not the credentials, so that it's been hard for school men to accept the thought that someone who has never been to college has made an important contribution to science. Ovshinsky's contribution is the invention of a material that can do what semi-conductors in computers and calculators can do and much, much more . . . and at a lower price with greater simplicity.
Some scientists at places like the University of Chicago have always taken the work of Ovshinsky, 54 and the son of a Lithuanian immigrant, seriously. But most businesses dismissed Ovshinsky's announcement in 1968 that his "Ovonic" materials were on hand and ready to replace the huge, new semiconductor industry. Since then his claims have tested out so well that the Wall Street Journal recently quoted David Adler, an M.I.T. professor of engineering, as saying, "On every single point of controversy it is now clear that Ovshinsky has been correct from the very beginning, and it is about time that the scientific community acknowledges this explicitly."
Minnesota Minning and Manufacturing has used Ovshinsky's work to develop the "MicrOvonic File," which can replace microfilm. The MicrOvonic File uses none of the chemicals of conventional photography to store its images and, unlike any other photography, the MicrOvonic picture can be changed or added to as new information or corrections become available. Ovshinsky says he could perfect as instant camera along the same principles that would do away with the messy chemicals and waiting time of current instant camera technology.
The Burroughs Corp. is at work developing a new computer on the basis of Ovshinsky's accomplishments. Nevertheless this remarkable man is in deep financial difficulty. The company has founded to manufacture products based on his technologies. Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., of Troy, Mich., has run up a deficit of close to $20 million. Business Week reports that last year Ovshinsky had to sell half of his rights to his solar work to the United Nuclear Corp.
Ovshinsky's real difficulty is that he is a throwback to the one-man inventor-genius-manufacturer of a century ago. The corporate world has put a stop to free-lance Da Vincis like Ovshinsky. If the man had gone to college and become a proper, organizationally subservient, modern genius, he would have been sold by his deans and professors into the bondage of the corporate laboratory, where the fruits of his invention would have been signed over to United Grain, Inc.
Having escaped getting his spiritual backbone broken by higher education, Ovshinsky yearns to have his own company making things of his own invention. There'll be none of that, sir. We have ways of seeing you can't do it.
Testifying before the Senate Patent Committee, a witness explained as long as 35 years ago how the individual loses in this game: "If he remains a member of the almost extinct tribe of solo inventors he is usually powerless to compete with the industrial giants that control credit, technological facilities and the market, and he is generally unable to develop his patent in the face of the expenses of infringement suits."
Ovshinsky hasn't had the legal treatment yet. Until recently the scientists in many of the big labs wouldn't recognize what he was no to, but from now on he may get it from the lawyers as others before him have: "By means of interference and infringement suits, the corporations were able, equally inclined, to harass patent applicants and cause them to abandon their claims. According to the president of the Thomas Edison Co., Edison himself had spent more money in obtaining patents, litigating them and preventing infringements than he had received from them. Lee De Forest (inventor of television), while successful in defending his claims and selling some rights to AT&T for a sizeable sum, was pushed into bankruptcy as a result of other patent litigation" (from "America by Design: Science, Technology and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism," by David F. Noble, a first-rate and unique piece of work).
Patent laws could be changed to do what they were intended to, that is, to reward invention, but suggestions along these lines were rejected generations ago.
Ovshinsky has a better chance of dying famous than rich.