Bloomfield Hills, Mich. — Stan Ovshinsky, probably Michigan’s greatest genius of the past century, died last week, a month before his 90th birthday, after a battle with prostate cancer.
Oddly, he was less famous in his home state than almost anywhere else on the planet.
His family arranged an early birthday party for him over Labor Day weekend. Famous scientists flew in from as far away as Tokyo. United Auto Workers President Bob King and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) delayed their flights to the Democratic National Convention to be there.
Small wonder. This was the man who invented the nickel-metal-hydride battery that powers most laptop computers. He was the driving force behind flat-screen liquid crystal TV and computer screens, solar energy panels, electric car technology, and hydrogen fuel cells.
“Hydrogen is the automotive fuel of the future,” he told me this year. “The power of the sun. We’ll never run out.”
All that remained was to make it affordable.
Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, consulted with him. So did physicist I.I. Rabi and a host of other Nobel Prize winners. Mr. Ovshinsky was granted more than a thousand patents worldwide.
Time magazine called him “a hero for the planet.” The Economist magazine called him “the Edison of our age.”
What makes all this especially astounding is that not only did Mr. Ovshinsky not have a doctorate, he didn’t even finish high school and only later earned a General Educational Development degree. He didn’t care about titles. “Call me Stan,” he told everybody.
In 1960, he and his beloved second wife, Iris, scraped together some savings and started a business called Energy Conversion Devices. Mr. Ovshinsky soon created a stir by asserting that everything science knew about semiconductors was wrong. The scientific establishment ignored him, or wrote him off with scathing contempt.
Finally, a renowned physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tested his theory. Stunned, the physicist proclaimed that Mr. Ovshinsky was right.
Other inventions followed. Hellmut Fritzsche, then head of the physics department at the University of Chicago, wasn’t buying the story about the self-taught inventor. Skeptical, he came to visit ECD in the mid-1960s. He left as vice president of the company.
Last month, the now-retired professor told an audience at the Ovshinsky home: “I‘ve met a lot of Nobel Prize winners. Stan Ovshinsky is the only true genius I’ve ever met.”
In 2006, President George W. Bush visited one of the many companies Mr. Ovshinsky founded. Mr. Bush looked at the solar technology and, awed, said, “This is real,” as he stood for pictures with Stan and Iris.
But closer to home, the inventor was seen as less a genius than an erratic businessman. An effective salesman, Mr. Ovshinsky was skilled at getting money men to invest in ECD.
The company poured out a steady stream of tantalizing inventions, but it seldom made money. Investors complained that there was a lack of focus.
“Once he gets something going,” an investor said, “he gets more interested in working on his next tomato slicer.”
Things got somewhat better after former General Motors chairman Bob Stempel joined ECD. But in 2007, the board ousted Mr. Ovshinsky. Mr. Stempel retired.
In Mr. Ovshinsky’s place, the board installed a former helicopter pilot who attempted to concentrate only on solar roofing materials. That worked for awhile, but when the recession hit, ECD was destroyed.
Despite his ouster, Mr. Ovshinsky was financially secure from the sale and licensing of his patents. He was urged to write his memoirs. Instead, at 85, he founded two companies.
This year, over dinner, he told me his goal was to make solar cells so efficient that using them would be cheaper than electricity generated from burning coal. “And I am convinced I can get there,” he said.
Few knew that his purpose was political: He wanted to make this a better world for everyone.
If President Bush had bothered to research Mr. Ovshinsky’s politics before visiting his lab, he might have thought twice about coming. Mr. Ovshinsky cut his teeth in his native Akron as a union organizer, when that was a dangerous thing.
He was the son of a scrap metal dealer who emigrated here from Lithuania. He was a member of about every civil rights group. Closest to his heart was a century-old secular Jewish social justice group called Workman’s Circle.
To the surprise of many, he chose to be buried in the Workman’s Circle Cemetery in his native Akron.
Once, after a dinner in his home, I asked who was his biggest hero. I expected it would be one of the great figures of science. Not even close.
He took a book off a shelf about Eugene Debs, the great early American Socialist leader, and showed me this quote: “Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on Earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it.”
He nodded: “I agree with that.”
After he died, his son, filmmaker Harvey Ovshinsky, said that in his last days his father would rouse himself and say: “I’m still trying to figure it out.” Then the son added: “Knowing Stan, he may have.”
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: email@example.com
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