Tech innovatorStanford Ovshinsky

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You’ve probably never heard of Ovshinsky, but every day, you probably use at least one product he invented. Like what? The nickel-metal hydride battery, used in digital cameras, cell phones, laptop computers, and hybrid cars. Ultra-thin LCD displays, used in flat panel TVs. The rewriteable CD and DVD disk. “Phase-change” memory chips that don’t need power to keep their data. Thin-film solar panels that can be so cheaply produced, they come in rolls. In all, he was awarded more than 400 patents. “I’ve known great people, having been at the University of Chicago for over 40 years,” said physicist Hellmut Fritzsche, who sometimes worked as a consultant for Ovshinsky’s company, “and I consider Stan Ovshinsky the only genius I ever met.”

Ovshinsky first came to prominence in 1968, when he proved that glass could conduct electricity, and argued that glass semiconductors would one day not only be feasible, but cheaper than those based on silicon. Other scientists scoffed, but such devices are a reality now (The field is called Ovonics — a contraction of Ovshinsky and electronics). All this, and he was completely self-taught: he learned everything he knew by himself, starting with reading everything he could find of interest in his home town library, in Akron, Ohio. “His teachers didn’t understand him, but his librarian did,” his son said. “The librarian let him take out adult books without questioning or challenging him. He was tireless in his curiosity.” His study of the brain, for instance, led to his work on semiconductors and electronic memory. He died October 17 from prostate cancer, at 89.

From This is True for 21 October 2012