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It's a safe bet that unless you're a scientist or an engineer, you've probably never heard of Stanford Ovshinsky. And that's a shame, because his inventions made possible a lot of the electronic gadgetry that our 21st-century high-tech world has become so dependent on.
The quirky, self-taught inventor, who died on Oct. 17 in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., at age 89, was once labeled the "Edison of our age" by The Economist magazine, and for good reason. Ovshinksy held almost 700 patents, and nearly every battery maker in the world licensed his version of the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery, which powers everything from flashlights to hybrid cars. He also held patents for technology that makes possible flat-panel TV and computer screens and the rewritable CDs and DVDs that we use to record and play back music and movies. He also pioneered the development of the materials used in solar panels, and in his late 80s was still working intently on his dream of making solar energy cheaper than electricity from coal.
But although Ovshinsky left an impressive technological legacy, he's even more memorable as a throwback to the time in history when a self-taught tinkerer such as Edison or Marconi would change the world with a new gadget. Here are five of the oddest, most interesting facts about one of our greatest inventors.
- Ovshinsky never went to college. He grew up in Akron, Ohio, the son of hardscrabble Lithuanian immigrants who eked out a living collecting scrap metal. Lacking the wherewithal to attend Princeton or MIT, Ovshinksy worked instead as a lathe operator while at night he devoured books from the local public library.
- One of his early inventions saved U.S. soldiers' lives during the Korean War. While working as a machinist, technology historian Michael Brooks wrote, Ovshinsky got an idea for how to improve the lathe that he worked with. Everyone at the shop scoffed until he actually hit the switch on his new invention and demonstrated how it worked. The blue-collar inventor eventually started his own firm and then sold the technology to another company, which used it during the Korean conflict to rapidly churn out artillery shells that helped U.S. forces turn back the North Koreans.
- He was a great scientist, but not much of a businessman. As his New York Times obituary noted, EVD Ovonics, the company that Ovshinsky founded in 1960, lost money for decades, and survived in large part by selling his patents and collecting royalties. But Ovshinsky didn't care much about riches. As he told the Detroit Free Press in 2008: "A real inventor is not motivated by money. It's about the idea and the creation."
- He had a starring role in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? In the scathing 2006 cinematic takedown of General Motors' failed project to develop an all-electric car, Ovshinsky appears in the film to explain how GM failed to capitalize on the battery technology it purchased from him. "I expected champagne and roses," he groused.
- For nearly 50 years, he and his wife worked together. Iris M. Ovshinsky, who died in 2006, worked at Ovshinsky's side, often serving as his sounding board when he was contemplating an idea for a new invention. In a 2004 PBS interview, Ovshinsky was asked how they managed to be both research and romantic partners. "By being in love," he said.