The Edison of Our Age
Ovshinsky isn’t a household name in America, but, it should be.
Stanford R. Ovshinsky is an American scientist and inventor who has close to 400 United States patents to his credit. Additionally, many of his inventions have such wide-ranging applications that the world we know and love would be a very different place without them.
Just to name a few:
• rewritable CDs and DVDs.
• the environmentally friendly nickel-metal hydride battery.
• flexible thin-film solar energy laminates and panels.
• hydrogen fuel cells.
• flat screen LCDs.
Basically, if you drive a hybrid vehicle, have solar panels on your roof, or use re-chargeable batteries, you’re benefiting from the work of Stanford Ovshinsky.
Incidentally, the concept of granting rights to an inventor goes way back to around 500 BC, while, patents similar to the ones we have today have been around for over 500 years. Thomas Edison shattered the record for most patents by an individual in the United States. He earned 1,093 patents in the U.S. and several hundred more from other countries such as Great Britain, France and Germany. Today, the entire landscape of the patent world has changed and IBM has been surpassing its own record year after year for well over a decade. According to United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), IBM recently earned 3,621 U.S. patents in a single year, surpassing the next closest challenger by 1,170.
Stanford Ovshinsky is like Thomas Edison in many ways. For example, Ovshinsky is a self-taught inventor who chose to work in the fields of energy and information and has done so over a career that spans more than 50 years. More specifically, and more importantly, after two completely separate and very long lifetimes of research and learning, both men came to virtually the same conclusion about a key issue. Both men accepted as true that solar energy combined with electric cars is smart and that burning fossil fuels for energy is stupid. As a matter of fact, Edison accepted that as true long before global warming and climate change were an issue.
In Edison’s own words:
“Some day some fellow will invent a way of concentrating and storing up sunshine to use instead of this old, absurd Prometheus scheme of fire. I’ll do the trick myself if someone else doesn’t get at it. Why, that is all there is about my work in electricity–you know, I never claimed to have invented electricity–that is a campaign lie–nail it!”
“Sunshine is spread out thin and so is electricity. Perhaps they are the same, but we will take that up later. Now the trick was, you see, to concentrate the juice and liberate it as you needed it. The old-fashioned way inaugurated by Jove, of letting it off in a clap of thunder, is dangerous, disconcerting and wasteful. It doesn’t fetch up anywhere. My task was to subdivide the current and use it in a great number of little lights, and to do this I had to store it. And we haven’t really found out how to store it yet and let it off real easy-like and cheap. Why, we have just begun to commence to get ready to find out about electricity. This scheme of combustion to get power makes me sick to think of–it is so wasteful. It is just the old, foolish Prometheus idea, and the father of Prometheus was a baboon.”
“When we learn how to store electricity, we will cease being apes ourselves; until then we are tailless orangutans. You see, we should utilize natural forces and thus get all of our power. Sunshine is a form of energy, and the winds and the tides are manifestations of energy.”
“Do we use them? Oh, no! We burn up wood and coal, as renters burn up the front fence for fuel. We live like squatters, not as if we owned the property.
“There must surely come a time when heat and power will be stored in unlimited quantities in every community, all gathered by natural forces. Electricity ought to be as cheap as oxygen, for it cannot be destroyed.
“Now, I am not sure but that my new storage-battery is the thing. I’d tell you about that, but I don’t want to bore you…”
Incidentally, Prometheus was one of the mythical Greek Gods who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals. According to the myth, Zeus punished him by tying him to a rock while a great eagle ate his liver every day only to have it grow back to be eaten again the next day.
Edison made that strong statement 100 years ago in 1910. About 20 years later, speaking shortly before his death, it became quite apparent that he felt as strongly about the issue as ever:
“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ’til oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”
Well, the sad fact remains that if Edison were still alive, his hopes would be mostly shattered by now and he would have lost that bet. Although, I’m sure he would have argued over the meaning and context of the word “tackle.” In any event, even Edison could never have imagined that the orangutans would have their own way for such a long time. For over a century they’ve succeeded in keeping practical energy alternatives obscure.
If you’ve heard of Ovshinsky at all, it’s probably because of his brief appearance in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car, a film that explores the creation, limited commercialization, and subsequent destruction (crushing) of the battery electric vehicle in the United States, specifically the General Motors EV1. Ovshinsky happens to be the one who invented a battery that GM used in those cars. In the film, he and his late wife Iris talk about the unfortunate circumstances that led to the destruction of the battery-powered vehicle.
Here is a link to the part of the film that pertains to Stanford Ovshinsky:
Ovshinsky later made the comment that when GM crushed all those electric cars they probably wished that he was in one.
What a shock it must have been to go from expecting Champagne and roses for a marvelous invention that greatly benefits mankind, to suddenly realizing that you are the enemy. In fact, Ovshinsky and his wife Iris worked together day after day with one underlying goal in mind. They wanted to use advanced science and technology to make the world a better place for all people. And just when they thought that they had achieved a big part of that goal, their dreams were smashed by vested interests not wanting change. As mentioned in the clip, an energy company bought controlling rights of Ovshinsky’s company and essentially crushed the technology.
By the way, the very first battery Ovshinsky invented had a range of 201 miles or 323 kilometers on a single charge, which my 6 cylinder barely manages on about $80 worth of gas. Apparently, the special interests have been lying about the range of all such batteries for a very long time.
Speaking of oil-soaked orangutans, George W. Bush actually took a tour of Ovshinsky’s solar company United Solar Ovonic (Uni-Solar), in February of 2006. Apparently, when Ovshinsky offered to show Bush a few more of his (make the world a better place) scientific inventions, Bush responded with something along the lines of, “Stan, I studied History in college, not Science. Showing me wouldn’t change a thing about science,” to which Ovshinsky responded,
“Well, let’s change history then.”
Ovshinsky is currently working on something really big. His latest project is a 1 Gigawatt, or one billion watt, solar power plant that he says will produce energy at a lower cost, actually, than coal.
Ovshinsky talks about this and much more in a recent full length interview hosted by an organization called On Innovation. Here is a link to an interview that captures the oral history of one the world’s true visionaries: