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

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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