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Stan Ovshinsky: American “Zimrman” who didn’t care about money and invented the technologies we use every day

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“Such people are not born today,” we sadly nod when we talk about such giants as Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla or Yara Zimrman. Often such titans literally walk around us, and the world notices them only when the centery of their birth comes. Which brings us to the wonderful case of Mr. Stanford R. Ovshinsky.

Stan Ovshinsky was born on November 24, 1922, to Lithuanian immigrants living in the bleak industrial city of Akron, Ohio. Ben’s father made a living selling scrap metal, and as soon as little Stan grew up, he and his father began to crawl around the factory yards, where they collected broken equipment, broken parts and discarded cars. After a few years, the little boy became an experienced mechanic who could easily make a living as a repairman or designer. But simple mechanics were not enough for him. Even the most complex devices seemed to him primitive and cumbersome, and he was attracted by the idea that machines could function on their own under the supervision of thinking automatons. So he began hanging around the Akron libraries, devouring books on mechanics, physics, chemistry, and biology, and storing them in his phenomel memory. His future colleagues often said that he could flip through any book, seemingly without hesitation, remembering not only the exact quotes, but also the page numbers on which he read them.

What do atoms want?

For some, the lack of a classical education is a major handicap. Stanford made it a priority. He did not think about physics and mechanics mathematically, he did not perceive chemistry through formulas and equations. He moved between sciences and disciplines purely intuitively, relying on feeling and visualization. He himself claimed that he could visualize atoms and molecules and feel what they wanted to do. Then it was enough for him to put the visualization into practice.

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Ovshinsky’s first invention was an automatic lathe (he med it after his father), and to find a use for it, he moved to Detroit, which was experiencing an automobile boom in the 1940s. The young mechanic began working for the Hupp Motor Company, where he continued to invent and improve. But he faced resistance from engineers who considered the self-taught a fool, and his improvements, including, for example, electric power steering, ended up in the archives or immediately in the trash. Therefore, Stan soon said goodbye to strip production and, together with his brother Herb, founded his own company, General Automation, later remed Energy Conversion Devices (ECD).

Looking for Iris

Like a true technology visiory, Ovshinsky also chose the motto of where his company would go. In his case, it was: “Solve social problems and save the planet.” great support and inspiration in his performance. Her precise knowledge gave concrete direction to the abstract visions of the young genius, her mastery of scientific methods allowed the couple to write articles for publication and apply for patents. Under the guidance of Iris Stan began to study cybernetics, biochemistry, neuroscience and neuropsychology, while continuing to explore intelligent machines and devices for storing energy and information. In 1959, he introduced the world to an invention called Ovitron, which he himself described as a mechanical model of a neuron. The thin-film semiconductor switch was made from amorphous, non-crystalline materials, which had previously been considered impossible. Ovitron was ahead of its time not only in material but also in use. Only much later did it allow the development of semiconductor technology and modern storage media, including rewritable CDs and DVDs.

Inventions from the future

Other inventions of Ovshinsky followed similarly. In the late 1960s, when giant tube televisions were the craze of modern technology, he developed a liquid crystal flat screen. In 1979, he remembered his youth spent on the factory floor and built a machine for the production of thin and flexible solar panels with his own hands. In 1982, he developed the revolutiory (and still in use today) nickel-metal hydride battery and confidently installed it in place of the car’s powertrain. Later, the Solectri won the famous Tour de Sol electric car race, driving a full 600 km on a single charge. Of course, this was not enough for the ambitious inventor, and he set about developing the technology of hydrogen cells, with which he wanted to replace interl combustion engines and in which he intended to store energy from solar panels. The list of his inventions can be continued for a long time, and many of them are probably still waiting to be discovered. Not so long ago, Intel announced the revolutiory Optane memory module, which combines the speed of SSDs with the capacity of mechanical hard drives. At the same time, the memory is based on 3D XPoint technology, which was created in the EDC laboratories back in 1989.

Employer of the century

Authors who write about the lives of brilliant inventors and industrial giants often find themselves in a situation where they have to justify to readers some of the unpleasant character traits of their heroes. Nikola Tesla lived to the end of his life in a love affair with a pigeon, Tomas Bata smashed the pubs in Zlín, and George Pullman immediately imprisoned his railroad workers in labor camps. Stanford Ovshinsky was exceptiol in this respect as well. In his companies and laboratories, HR standards were applied, which today are followed by modern enlightened companies. They brought together specialists from all disciplines, they employed men and women, regardless of age, tiolity and race. When the local government refused to rent the house to an African-American employee, Stan and Iris bought the house and moved into it themselves. Like the fate of every worker, Stan Ovshinsky’s heart was the fate of all mankind. From the very beginning of the company’s activities, he has been openly opposed to the excessive use of fossil fuels and pointed out its impact on global climate change. He links the 400 inventions that came out of his laboratories to the motto he set at the very beginning: “Solve social problems and save the planet.”

For God’s sake…

Unfortutely, Ovshinsky’s idiosyncratic approach to science was often reflected in his approach to business. Money was secondary to him. He immediately invested all the profits in further research, and his companies often found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy, which he prevented by selling patents and copyrights. Even academics never completely took him at their mercy, often accused of charlatanism, and he was only inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2015, when he was already three years old after his death. The fact is that his methods were often very unorthodox, and his supporters admitted that he looked more like an alchemist than a scientist. Maybe it was true. After all, the ancient alchemical rule Opus Magnum says that the goal of all undertakings should be the salvation of the human soul and the salvation of the universe.

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