Japan’s Yankee genius, the greatest scientist you've never heard of

Ovshinsky created a hatful of world-changing innovations, many of which threatened the dominance of America’s great new invention: the transistor. US corporate interests rubbished his work and he ended up licensing his technologies to a few small Japanese

On 17 October, there will be a portentous conjunction. This will be the day when the United States reaches its overdraft limit, leaving it with just $30bn to pay its bills (about half the $60bn a day needed). It is also the UN’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty; and it will be the first anniversary of the death of Stanford Ovshinsky, the greatest scientist you’ve never heard of. We could pull everything together neatly by naming it “Ovshinsky Day”.

Ovshinsky created a hatful of world-changing innovations. In 1968, the New York Times declared that his new electronic switch would lead to a future in which we would all have “small, general-purpose desktop computers for use in homes, schools and offices” and “a flat, tubeless television set that can be hung on the wall like a picture”.

It seemed so unlikely that no one in the US wanted to invest. What’s more, Ovshinsky’s discoveries threatened the dominance of America’s great new invention: the transistor. US corporate interests rubbished his work and he ended up licensing his technologies to a few small Japanese companies. You might know their names: Sharp, Canon, Sony, Matsushita . . .

No wonder Ovshinsky was later hailed as “Japan’s American genius”. That US overdraft might not have become quite so bad if the country’s business leaders had operated with more foresight and less fear.

By the end of his life, Ovshinsky had established a new field of science: the study of “amorphous” materials, messy solids that have no regular atomic structure. He published around 300 academic papers on the subject. His inventions gained more than 400 patents. All this from a man who taught himself physics using books borrowed from the public library in his home town of Akron, Ohio.

The technology behind rewritable CDs and DVDs was Ovshinsky’s brainchild, as was the material for “phase-change memory”, now standard in data storage technologies today.He designed the solar panels used in the Japanese calculators that flooded the world market in the 1980s. Similarly ubiquitous is his rechargeable nickel-metal hydride battery.

As one of the first people to spot that burning fossil fuels would lead to global climate change, Ovshinsky geared much of his research towards steering us away from that future. His altruism was unbounded: he threw ideas to anyone who would listen. Nevill Mott, on receiving his Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977, admitted that he got some of his best ideas from Ovshinsky.

In 1960, Ovshinsky set up his firm Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) to use “creative science to solve societal problems”. He saw science ending poverty by ensuring everyone had access to the resources necessary for life.

He led by example. In 2000, an analysis of executive pay by the Institute for Policy Studies found that the average chief executive was drawing 500 times the salary of an average worker at the same company. Ovshinsky was taking just five times the wage of those on ECD’s factory floor.

Ovshinsky didn’t eradicate poverty before he died last October and the UN isn’t going to get there just by naming a day in honour of the idea. Yet that’s no reason to give up. You’ve heard of him now and it’s almost inevitable that you’ll use one of his technologies on 17 October. When you do, give something back. Choose to walk, take public transport or cycle rather than burn fossil fuels. Borrow a book from a library. Give something away – an idea, money, some help. Have a happy Ovshinsky Day.

The flatscreen TV: impossible without Ovshinsky. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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The one where she turns into a USB stick: the worst uses of tech in films

The new film Worst Tinder Date Ever will join a long tradition of poorly-thought-through tech storylines.

News just in from Hollywood: someone is making a film about Tinder. What will they call it? Swipe Right, perhaps? I Super Like You? Some subtle allusion to the app’s small role in the plotline? Nope – according to Hollywood Reporterthe film has been christened Worst Tinder Date Ever.

With the exception of its heavily branded title (You’ve Got Gmail, anyone?), Worst Tinder Date Ever follows neatly in the tradition of writers manhandling tech into storylines. Because really, why does it matter if it was a Tinder date? This “rom com with action elements” reportedly focuses on the couple’s exploits after they meet on the app, so the dogged focus on it is presumably just a ploy to get millennial bums on cinema seats.  

Like the films on this list, it sounds like the tech in Worst Tinder Date Ever is just a byword for “modern and cool” – even as it demonstrates that the script is anything but.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Lucy (2014)

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman who accidentally ingests large quantities of a new drug which promises to evolve your brain beyond normal human limits.

She evolves and evolves, gaining superhuman powers, until she hits peak human, and turns into first a supercomputer, and then a very long USB stick. USB-Lucy then texts Morgan Freeman's character on his fliphone to prove that: “I am everywhere.”

Beyond the obvious holes in this plotline (this wouldn’t happen if someone’s brain evolved; texting a phone is not a sign of omnipotence), USB sticks aren’t even that good – as Business Insider points out: “Flash drives are losing relevance because they can’t compete in speed and flexibility with cloud computing services . . . Flashdrives also can’t carry that much information.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

If you stare at it hard enough, the plotline in the latest Star Wars film boils down to the following: a gaggle of people travels across space in order to find a map showing Luke Skywalker’s location, held on a memory stick in a drawer in a spherical robot. Yep, those pesky flash drives again.

It later turns out that the map is incomplete, and the rest of it is in the hands of another robot, R2-D2, who won’t wake up for most of the film in order to spit out the missing fragment. Between them, creator George Lucas and writer and director JJ Abrams have dreamed up a dark vision of the future in which robots can talk and make decisions, but can’t email you a map.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

In which a scientist uses a computer to find the “precise location of the three remaining golden tickets sent out into the world by Willy Wonka. When he asks it to spill the beans, it announces: “I won’t tell, that would be cheating.


Image: Paramount Pictures. 

The film inhabits a world where artificial intelligence has been achieved, but no one has thought to pull Charlie's poor grandparents out of extreme poverty, or design a computer with more than three buttons.

Independence Day (1996)

When an alien invasion threatens Earth, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) manages to stop it by hacking the alien spaceship and installing a virus. Using his Mac. Amazing, really, that aliens from across the universe would somehow use computing systems so similar to our own. 

Skyfall (2012)

In the Daniel Craig reboot of the series, MI6’s “Q” character (played by Ben Whishaw) becomes a computer expert, rather than just a gadget wizard. Unfortunately, this heralded some truly cringeworthy moments of “hacking” and “coding” in both Skyfall and Spectre (2014).

In the former, Bond and Q puzzle over a screen filled with a large, complex, web shape. They eventually realise it’s a map of subterranean London, but then the words security breach flash up, along with a skull. File under “films which make up their own operating systems because a command prompt box on a Windows desktop looks too boring”.

An honourable mention: Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” (2009)

Not a movie, but how could we leave out a music video in which Kelly Rowland texts Nelly on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on a weird Nokia palm pilot?


Image: Vevo.

You’ll be waiting a long time for that response, Kelly. Try Tinder instead.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.