Stanford R. Ovshinsky Papers

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Stanford R. Ovshinsky papers

The materials in this online repository form part of a larger Stanford R. Ovshinsky papers record group held by the Bentley Historical Library. For a more complete index to the materials, please consult the collection's online finding aid.

For questions or more information, please contact the Bentley Historical Library's Division of Reference and Access Services

Records of the personal and professional life of Stanford R. Ovshinsky, a Michigan inventor and pioneer in the field of amorphous materials; his work emphasized photovoltaics and batteries, among other areas. Includes correspondence, business files, technical publications and presentations, and related records documenting Ovshinsky’s life, activities, accomplishments, and interests.

History / Biography:
Stanford Robert Ovshinsky was born November 24, 1922 in Akron, Ohio, to Benjamin and Bertha (Munitz) Ovshinsky, immigrants from Lithuania and Poland. He had two siblings, Herbert (“Herb”) and Myrtle (“Mashie”), who was later known as Sandra. Stan married three times. On August 9, 1942, he was united in marriage with childhood friend Norma Rifkin; the relationship ended in divorce in 1959. To this union were born three sons, Benjamin, Harvey, and Dale. Stan subsequently wed Dr. Iris L. Dibner (née Miroy) in Toledo, Ohio, on March 30, 1962. Iris—an accomplished scientist with degrees in zoology, biology, and biochemistry—brought to their relationship two children of her own, Robin and Steven. Stan and Iris worked successfully together for the long and happy duration of their marriage, crediting their combined advances in science to their loving relationship. Iris’s unexpected death in August 2006 devastated Stan. In late 2007, he married Dr. Rosa Young, whom he had known for more than twenty years through her work with Energy Conversion Devices. Stanford R. Ovshinsky passed away October 17, 2012 at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, leaving behind a wife, three children, four stepchildren, and several grandchildren.

Ovshinsky began his working life at Tann Corporation in the Congress Controls division and served as Vice President of Cytrol Corporation before turning his attention to other areas of study. At the dawn of his career, Stan’s lack of college credentials and the radical nature of his theories in the field of amorphous materials hindered the acceptance of his ideas by the scientific community, but his persistent dedication to his research eventually bore fruit. In 1968, Stan announced that he had discovered what was subsequently dubbed the Ovshinsky Effect, a phenomenon concerning the transformation of a nonconductive glassy thin film to a semiconductor with the application of a certain minimum voltage. This discovery, repeatedly corroborated by other researchers after Stan’s announcement, marked a turning point in his life as a scientist.

By the 1970s, Stan’s writings on the subject of amorphous materials and memory had become cornerstones of an expanding, promising field and made his name a common one in scientific circles. Invitations to speak at technical conferences and at university commencements, where he was awarded a number of honorary degrees, took Stan and Iris around the world and brought them into contact with many preeminent scientists. Over the course of his career, Stan earned his own remarkable place in the ranks of accomplishment, obtaining over 400 U.S. patents and penning more than 300 publications. He actively participated in research and continued to write technical articles, many of which he presented publicly, into his late eighties. The astonishing breadth and innovation of this work led prominent British newspaper The Economist to propose that Ovshinsky be considered “the Edison of our age.”

A driven entrepreneur, Ovshinsky established numerous companies during his working life, building partnerships with a variety of national and international corporations. He started his first enterprise, Stanford Roberts Machine Company, around 1948. From this business was born one of Ovshinsky’s first inventions, the Benjamin Center Drive lathe. Stan paid tribute his late father by naming the highly flexible, multipurpose machine in his honor. When the United States entered the Korean War in 1950, this lathe became a crucial and profitable tool in the production of massive amounts of shells for the American armed forces. Shortly before the beginning of the war, however, Stan sold both the Benjamin Center Drive and his business to the New Britain Machine Company, which was incorporated into Northrup Grumman after a series of acquisitions. In 1951, he accepted a new position with Hupp Motor Company as Director of Research and moved to the Detroit area, where he would reside for the rest of his life. At Hupp, Stan worked extensively in the development of improved power steering systems. On his own initiative, he also began studying the brain and principles of neurophysiology. This new interest prompted Stan and his brother Herb to found a business of their own, General Automation, where they created the Ovitron, a mechanical model of a nerve cell that functioned as a hybrid solid state/liquid state switching device. Stan and Herb patented and publicized the machine, a pioneering example of nanostructures, in 1959. Around this time, General Automation was renamed Ovitron Corporation in honor of its groundbreaking invention.

Stan’s entrepreneurship reached new heights in 1960, when he established Energy Conversion Laboratory with his future wife Iris. In 1964, the company changed its name to Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. (ECD). ECD underwent tremendous expansion over the subsequent decades, creating numerous subsidiary companies and forging business connections around the globe, including partnerships with General Motors, Chevron, and Texaco. Seeking to solve critical social and environmental problems through cutting-edge research, the company focused primarily on energy generation, energy storage, and information technology. ECD applied new knowledge and techniques of amorphous materials to improve solar energy collection and use, nickel-metal hydride batteries (prominently used in hybrid cars), imaging film and display, and a host of other technologies. Over the years, the company and its subsidiaries attracted many brilliant people as employees, board members, consultants, and investors. Robert C. Stempel, formerly CEO of and automotive engineer with General Motors, joined Energy Conversion Devices as an advisor and quickly became its chairman, a position he held for 12 years. Hellmut Fritzsche, another prominent scientist and long-time researcher at the University of Chicago, became an ECD board member in 1969 and later served as vice president until his resignation in 2003. Fritzsche also worked with two of the company’s subsidiaries, joining United Solar Systems as a member of their Board of Directors and Ovonic Battery Company as Chief Operating Officer. Other prominent scientists involved with ECD included David Adler, a celebrated physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Sir Nevill Mott, a distinguished British scientist and Nobel Prize winner in physics. While working at ECD, Stan also founded the Institute for Amorphous Studies (IAS), bringing together many of the scientists working in the field of amorphous materials and hosting lectures offered by members of the institute. Among the speakers who presented at IAS were at least five Nobel Laureates, a contributor to the Manhattan Project, and a pantheon of prominent academics at some of the world’s top universities, colleges, and research organizations.

In 2007, following company disputes, Stan retired from ECD and began another enterprise, Ovshinsky Innovation LLC, with fellow scientist Rosa Young; he and Rosa married later that year. Ovshinsky led this company until his death from cancer in 2012, just one month shy of his 90th birthday. Shortly before Stan passed away, Energy Conversion Devices filed for bankruptcy, announced plans to dissolve, and liquidated its remaining assets.

Please note:

Copyright has been transferred to the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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