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

Show Hide image

Buying into broadband’s bigger picture

Reliable internet access must be viewed as a basic necessity, writes Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet.

 

As we hurtle towards a connected future, in which the internet will underpin most aspects of our daily lives, connectivity will become a necessity and not a luxury. As a society, we need to consider the wider benefits of enabling internet connections for all and ensure no corner of the county is left out of the digital loop.

Currently, despite government incentive schemes and universal service obligations, the rollout of broadband is left largely to the market, which relies on fixed and wireless network operators justifying deployment based on their own business models. The commercial justification for broadband deployment relies on there being sufficient demand and enough people to pay for a broadband subscription. Put flippantly, are there enough people willing to pay for Netflix, or Amazon? However, rather than depending on the broad appeal of consumer services we need to think more holistically about the provision of internet services. If road building decisions followed the same approach, it would equate to only building a road if everyone living in the area bought yearly gym membership for the leisure centre at the end of the new tarmac. The business case is narrow, and overlooks the far-reaching and ultimately more impactful benefits that are available.

Internet is infrastructure as much as roads are, and could easily prove attractive to a wider range of companies investing in digital technology who stand to gain from internet-enabled communities. Health services are one of the most compelling business cases for internet connectivity, especially in remote, rural communities that are often in the “final five per cent” or suffering with below average internet speeds. Super-fast broadband, defined as 30 Mbps, is now available to 89 per cent of UK homes, but only 59 per cent of rural dwellings can access these speeds.

We mustn’t assume this is a minority; rural areas make up 85 per cent of English land and almost ten million people (almost a fifth of the population) live in rural communities. This figure is rising, and ageing ‒ on average, 23.5 per cent of the rural population is over 65 compared to 16.3 per cent in urban areas ‒ and this presents complicated healthcare challenges for a NHS already struggling to meet demand. It goes without saying that accessibility is an issue: only 80 per cent of rural residents live within 4km of a GP’s surgery compared to 98 per cent of the urban population.

While the NHS may not have the resources to build more surgeries and hospitals, robust broadband connections in these areas would enable them to roll out telehealth options and empower their patients with healthcare monitoring apps and diagnostic tools. This would lower demand on face-to-face services and could improve the health of people in remote areas; a compelling business case for broadband.

We can’t afford to rely on “one business case to rule them all” when it comes to internet connectivity – the needs run far beyond Netflix and Spotify, and the long-term, economic and social benefits are vast. It’s time to shift our thinking, considering internet connectivity as essential infrastructure and invest in it accordingly, especially when it comes to the needs of the remote, rural areas of the country.

Russell Haworth joined Nominet as CEO in 2015. He leads the organisation as it develops its core registry business, explores the potential of new technologies in the global internet sector, and delivers on its commitment to ensuring the internet is a force for good.

This article was taken from a New Statesman roundtable supplement "The Internet as Infrastructure: Why rural connectivity is crucial to the UK’s success"

0800 7318496