Stanford Ovshinsky, 1922-2012

Stanford and Iris Ovshinsky. Image from a Christmas card sent to Linus Pauling, 1990.

Stanford R. Ovshinsky, a self-taught scientist and the inventor of the nickel-metal hydride battery, died on October 17th at his home in Michigan, at the age of 89.

Stanford Robert Ovshinsky was born in 1922 in Akron, Ohio to hardworking immigrant parents who encouraged his early mechanical interests. Ovshinsky married Norma Rifkin shortly after high school and worked for a few years at a Goodyear plant in Arizona. He then returned to Akron and, in 1946, opened up his own machine and lathe manufacturing shop. It was during this period that he patented his first invention, an original lathe. This design was admired by the New Britain Machine Company in Connecticut, which bought his company in 1950 and used the apparatus to manufacture artillery shells during the Korean War.

Despite Ovshinsky’s lack of higher education, his ingenuity was widely recognized by his peers and, in 1952, he was hired as the director of research at the Hupp Motor Company. Just a couple of years later, Ovshinsky and his younger brother, Herbert, established a new company, General Automation. Although the business was focused on designing automation equipment, Stanford pursued interests in a variety of areas, including energy technologies and neurophysiology.

These diverse interests led him to invent the Ovitron, a semiconductor based on the model of a nerve cell and utilizing amorphous thin films. This invention was the first to use nanostructures and surprised the scientific community greatly. The discovery also led to what became known as the Ovshinsky Effect, which described the flow of electrical currents in an amorphous flux. The breakthrough likewise disproved the notion that electricity could only flow in a crystalline environment and showed that it can transfer in a jelly-like environment. Ovshinsky patented the Ovitron in 1959.

Ovshinsky and his first wife were divorced in 1959 and shortly thereafter Stanford wed Iris Miroy Dibner. The pair were happily married for 46 years until Iris’s death in 2006. Beyond their close personal relationship, Stanford and Iris were also business partners. Iris held a BA in zoology from Swarthmore College, an MS in biology from the University of Michigan, and a Ph. D in biochemistry from Boston University – a stark contrast to Stanford’s complete lack of higher education.

Ovshinsky in 1960. (Credit: Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives)

The Ovshinskys founded Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. in 1960 as a vehicle for their ideas in the field of amorphous materials, with special emphasis on energy conversion. The couple used Stanford’s amorphous nanostructures discovery as a building block to propel advances in electronic memory, batteries, and solar cells.  Noteworthy among these advances was the nickel-metal hydride battery, which is used today to power hybrid cars. Over the course of their careers, the Ovshinskys also contributed to the invention of solar energy laminates and panels, flat-panel displays, and rewritable CD and DVD disks.

In 1963 Hellmut Fritzsche, a noted semiconductor researcher at the University of Chicago, visited Energy Conversion Devices and was immediately impressed. Fritzsche helped attract other scientists to the company to help with fundraising and eventually became its vice president. Many years later, in 1986, Linus Pauling joined the ranks, agreeing to serve as a consultant to company and as a member of the advisory committee of the affiliated Institute for Amorphous Studies. Pauling and Ovshinsky shared an interest in alternative energy sources as well as a distaste for nuclear energy. Pauling was also interested in Ovshinsky’s research on the mechanisms underlying high-temperature superconductors.

Ovshinsky won the Coors American Ingenuity Award in 1988. In reporting on the award Colorado Business Magazine noted that Ovshinsky, “one of the greatest inventors of this century,” longed

to see ovonic solar cells provide much of the world’s energy needs. If he can obtain enough orders to bring production costs down, Ovshinsky hopes to see solar energy soon reducing the world’s dependency on nonrenewable, polluting energy sources…Another discovery of Ovshinsky’s, that of storing data on glass-coated optical disks, is predicted by some to be the new choice of the computer industry, replacing the magnetic disk.

In concert with the award, August 1st was declared Stanford Ovshinsky Day in Denver, Colorado.

For the remainder of their collaboration, the Ovshinskys continued to focus on the development of renewable energy sources and promote them in the US. In 1988 Stanford wrote

Nondepletable, nonpolluting, ubiquitous sunshine must be the major power source for a brighter future for us all….The solution is clear and fortunately in place. What is on the agenda now that is going to have enormous economic consequences is the urgent need for the growth of photovoltaics for the generation of electricity and practical electric cars using newly developed nonpolluting hydride batteries….The true cost of oil is so high that we cannot afford it at any price.

Pauling commended Ovshinsky’s stance regarding alternative energy, writing “I am completely in agreement with [Ovshinsky’s] statement. I think that we need immediately to be putting much more money into solar energy and into batteries.”

Based on their frequent correspondence through letters and consistent exchange of Christmas cards in the 1980s and 1990s, we know that the Ovshinskys and Pauling maintained a cordial relationship based on mutual admiration and respect for many years.  Further evidence is held in a 1989 letter in which Ovshinsky wrote to express his pleasure in learning of Pauling’s receipt of the Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Board.  “Congratulations on yet another well deserved award!” he wrote. “Your profound impact has not only been on chemists but on physicists, material scientists, medical scientists and everyone. You have taught, inspired, and touched us all.”

Some three years later, Pauling reciprocated the sentiment by nominating Ovshinsky for the 1992 Japan Prize in the field of Science and Technology of Material Interfaces. In his nomination letter, Pauling revealed the depth of his respect for his colleague.

I have known Stanley Ovshinsky for more than twenty years. His contributions to the understanding of the properties of metals and intermetallic compounds, especially the electronic properties and especially those of amorphous substances, have constituted a very significant contribution to our understanding of these materials and to their technological applications.

After Iris Ovshinsky died in 2006, Stanford retired from Energy Conversion Devices. He married Rosa Young in 2007 and started a new company with her, Ovshinsky Innovation. He continued to work on renewable energy technologies until his death last month.


Barry Commoner, 1917-2012

Barry Commoner, ca. 1960s.

On September 30, 2012, Barry Commoner, an important environmentalist and key collaborator with Linus Pauling on the famous United Nations bomb test petition, died in Manhattan.

Commoner, born on May 28, 1917 in Brooklyn, was interested in science from a young age, spending hours examining life through the lens of a microscope. He worked his way through college and earned his bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Columbia University in 1937. From there he took his Ph. D. in cellular biology from Harvard University in 1941.

After receiving his doctorate, Commoner taught for a few years at Queen’s College, to which he would return later in life. He served in the Naval Air Corps during World War II and moved on to teaching at Washington University in St. Louis shortly after war’s end. In 1966 he became the founding director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, a research institute that continues to this day to investigate and remedy occupational and environmental threats to public health.

Commoner was not just an influential scientist, but a noteworthy grassroots activist as well. He has been called “the Paul Revere of Ecology” and the “father of the environmental movement” for promoting awareness of key environmental issues such as radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing, the consequences of nuclear energy, waste management and recycling, and the overall environmental impact of human existence.  He strongly believed in the importance of democracy and the need to empower informed choice through the free dissemination of scientific information. He advocated for scientific collaboration on key issues which affect the global population.

Original sponsors of the United Nations Bomb Test Petition.

Commoner’s first major activity as an activist was thrust upon him following Linus Pauling’s famed anti-nuclear speech at Washington University on May 15, 1957. Directly after the lecture, Pauling, Commoner and a fellow professor, Edward Condon, met in Commoner’s office to draft the “Appeal by American Scientists to the Governments and Peoples of the World,” a petition demanding the cessation of nuclear bomb testing worldwide. The three scientists were inspired by mounting evidence of negative health consequences caused by radioactive fallout from nuclear tests conducted in Earth’s atmosphere. This petition was immediately signed by about 100 scientists at Washington University.

Within a week, Commoner had formulated a plan to collect the signatures of scientists nationwide by sending out Pauling’s finalized petition to contacts a multiple universities. By the end of June, 2,000 signatures had been obtained and Commoner and Pauling began to spread the petition all over the world. “We were all as pleased as you must have been to discover how many signatures had been obtained on the Appeal,” Commoner wrote to Pauling at the time. “We are all quite convinced that the Appeal expresses a very widely held view among scientists.”

He was right: by January 13, 1958 the petition had been signed by 9,235 people and by July 3, 1958 it had been signed by 11,038 people from 49 nations.

Linus Pauling sent copies of the massive petition to President Dwight Eisenhower and United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, but initially received little support from either the federal government or the UN.  Congressional hearings on nuclear fallout held contemporary to the petition did not yield sufficient evidence to stop the United States’  testing program, leaving the community of activists to continue their fight.

Time magazine cover, February 2, 1970.

Barry Commoner was a vocal proponent of the widespread dissemination of scientific information to the public. He believed that as many people as possible should be involved in the dialogue over moral decisions, such as the hazards of fallout and the political necessity of nuclear bomb testing. In a speech given at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Committee on the Social Impacts of Science, held in Indianapolis on December 29, 1957, Commoner advocated for continued research on nuclear testing and for open communication about this research.

What appears to trouble the public is not that political opponents have disagreed on the nuclear test issue, but that the opinions of scientists have been marshaled on both sides of the debate. This appears to violate science’s traditional devotion to objectively discernible truth…In this situation the available facts are often not sufficient conclusively to support or contradict a given explanatory idea, and therefore opposing ideas will for the time flourish together…The remedy is apparent if not easy: more research…What we call a scientific truth emerges from the scientists’ insistence on free publication of their own observations. This permits the rest of the scientific community to check the data and evaluate the interpretations so that eventually a commonly held body of facts and ideas come into being…The development of a scientific truth is a direct outcome of the degree of communication which normally exists in science…The public must be given enough information about the need for testing and the hazards of fallout to permit every citizen to decide for himself whether nuclear tests should go on or be stopped…scientists must take pains to disclaim any special moral wisdom on this matter [because]…a public informed on this issue is the only true source of moral wisdom that must determine our nation’s policy on the testing – and the ultimate use of – nuclear weapons.

In February 1958, Commoner began to organize The Citizen’s Committee for Atomic Information to educate the people of St. Louis about the realities of radioactive fallout. This committee, along with two St. Louis area dental schools, went on to conduct the Baby Tooth Survey, which investigated the concentrations of Strontium-90 found in the human body as a result of nuclear fallout.  This philosophy of promoting grassroots direct democracy would guide Commoner’s environmental efforts for the rest of his life.

Although the United Nations Bomb Test Petition did not affect immediate policy change, it did yield important lasting effects. In 1963, Linus Pauling won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nuclear test ban petition efforts. The prize came in the wake of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited above-ground nuclear explosions and was signed to by the governments of the U.S., U.K. and U.S.S.R. This treaty was influenced both by the bomb test petition and by the Baby Tooth Survey.

Barry Commoner spent the rest of his life advocating for social justice in many areas, including environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality – all of which he believed were interconnected issues. He wrote five books about the intersection of environmental causes and social politics and ran for U.S. President as the head of his own Citizen’s Party in 1980, receiving 234,000 votes. Commoner advocated a prevention-based approach to environmental sustainability that never fully caught on politically in the U.S., but which a growing number now believe may be a key to solving many of the economic and environmental problems that we face today.

Pauling and Environmental Justice

Promotional flyer for Linus Pauling's Verve recording on fallout and nuclear warfare. 1960.

(Ed. note: Toshihiro Higuchi of Georgetown University, a 2009 Pauling Resident Scholar award winner, spent a month in Oregon State University’s Valley Library this past summer working with the Pauling Papers. The following is excerpted from his final research report.)

Archival research is always full of unexpected discoveries about the past, and my project at OSU was no exception. Of particular surprise was Linus Pauling’s deep involvement in environmental justice through the Fallout Suits, twice attempted in 1958 and in 1962.

While the courts of justice have always marked turning points in the history of racial and gender justice – Brown v. Board and Roe v. Wade, to name but a few – “an appeal to law” has been long underappreciated among scholars in their studies of peace activism and environmentalism. Pauling’s Fallout Suits, indeed, are usually considered as a sideshow overshadowed by his more famous worldwide petition campaign among scientists.

Two archival boxes in the Pauling papers regarding the Suits, however, revealed the judicial aspect of Pauling’s risk knowledge and grassroots activism regarding the danger of radioactive fallout.


Fallout Suits brochure, 1958.

While both the executive and legislative branches adopted a “wait and see” policy in hope of ascertaining the nature and extent of fallout hazards, Pauling and other “risk entrepreneurs,” acting against the inertia in the majority opinion and the pressure of time, found the judiciary branch as the only untried venue of power. The courts of justice alone could establish a legal fact about hazards and link it to an immediate action – injunction. This unique character of the judiciary power was believed to break the impasse in the other branches because of the inconclusiveness of scientific proof.

The legal recourse, however, was by no means simply tactical. The plaintiffs identified the legal source of the fallout problem – it was the conflict of interest and the absence of due process of law which placed the atomic energy agencies of all three nuclear powers above the rule of law in the name of national security. In the course of the legal fight, the plaintiffs in the Fallout Suits also posed a fundamental challenge to court jurisprudence. The unprecedented nature and scope of risk involved in nuclear fallout pointed to a new direction of jurisprudence beyond the traditional tort law.

The Fallout Suits, in short, aimed at no less than a sweeping legal groundwork for environmental justice at the time when there was no National Environmental Protection Act. Indeed, some archival findings revealed an unknown parallelism between the Fallout Suits and the DDT litigation, both intending to bring about a groundbreaking change in court jurisprudence.


Autoradiograph used to measure radioactive fallout, 1953.

My study in Corvallis also points to a promising direction of future research: the life-long association of Linus Pauling with litigation. Without doubt, many remember such an association as an unnecessary burden upon Pauling, as most cases related to libel and defamation.

As the case of the Fallout Suits vividly shows, however, Pauling was far from a passive victim in the courts. Indeed, Pauling successfully threatened to bring the case to court at the same time that the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee was using the tactics of red-baiting in its attempt to force him to disclose the names of those who collected signatures for the United Nations Bomb Test petition.

In the course of his involvement in numerous legal cases, Pauling became extremely well-versed with legal resources and approaches. Indeed, the Pauling papers include a vast amount of material relating to Pauling’s legal cases. Further research on this legal dimension of Pauling’s life and career would promise fruitful results.

Toshihiro Higuchi, Resident Scholar

Toshihiro Higuchi

Toshihiro Higuchi

Toshihiro Higuchi is the second individual this year to conduct research in Special Collections under the sponsorship of our Resident Scholar Program.

Originally from Japan, Higuchi first attended the University of Tsukuba on the Japanese island of Honshu. In 2002 he graduated with an M.A. in International Political Economy, after which he again entered the University of Tsukuba, this time in the Ph. D. program. During his second year as a doctoral candidate, Higuchi received a Fulbright award that presented him with the opportunity to study in the United States, something he had always wanted to do. In August of 2005, he enrolled at Georgetown University, where he is now in his fifth year as a Ph. D. candidate in the History department.

The research that Higuchi is conducting here in Special Collections is related to a portion of his dissertation work, a primary focus of which is the evolution of environmental consciousness in the United States and around the world. Higuchi’s thesis is that the fierce debate in the 1950s over the effects of radioactive fallout generated by nuclear weapons tests  (tests which presented the first instance of measurable global contamination and thus the first global environmental crisis) helped to inform later attitudes underlying not only peace activism, but also the environmental movement.

The Fallout Suits

One key aspect of Higuchi’s research in the Pauling Papers has been a study of a lesser-known component of Pauling’s peace work: the Fallout Suits. Filed in 1958, the Fallout Suits sought to utilize the court systems of the three nuclear powers (the U.S., Great Britain and the U.S.S.R.) to compel each nation to cease their nuclear weapons tests programs. The plaintiffs in these cases included well-known figures such as Pauling, Bertrand Russell and Canon L. John Collins, as well as an American housewife and three Japanese fishermen, all of whom were meant to represent differing perspectives on the dangers of radioactive fallout.

Having retained the council of lawyers Francis Heisler and A. L. Wirin, the backers of the Fallout Suits had three goals in mind. First, they sought to obtain court orders that would compel the governments of the nuclear powers to release secret information detailing the hazards of nuclear weapons tests. Using this information, they hoped that the courts would, either directly or indirectly, redefine the risk consensus associated with nuclear testing, which would then lead to new directives meant to address these risks. The ultimate goal was a comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons tests.

Philosophically, the plaintiffs argued that weapons tests were, in fact, illegal, because government agencies such as the Atomic Energy Commission had been granted powers that effectively rendered them autonomous and unaccountable to the rest of the democratic process. Furthermore, because tests were conducted without the express consent of the world’s population, and because the presumably harmful effects of testing (the plaintiffs argued that there was no safe dosage of radiation as it pertained to any potential impact on the pool of human germ plasm) clearly spread beyond the borders of nations, nuclear testing violated the constitutional and human rights of all individuals.

The U.S. government, acting as defendant in the U.S. filing, responded by admitting to certain of the plaintiffs facts regarding the potential effects of weapons tests, but also by submitting that the plaintiffs had no legal standing to sue. The defense argued that the question of weapons testing was not judiciable and that testing, like war, was in fact protected by the constitution.

The Fallout Suits did go to trial in the U.S. and the U.K., and in both instances the courts sided with the defense. In the U.S. the judges ruled according to a narrow interpretation of tort law; in simplest terms, because none of the individual plaintiffs could prove that they themselves had been harmed by nuclear weapons tests, none of those individuals had a right to sue. (A group of Marshall Islanders, on the other hand, who had been manifestly harmed by tests in the south Pacific, were not allowed to sue because of their status in the U.S. as non-resident aliens.) A similar interpretation was upheld in Great Britain and the Suits never made it to trial in the Soviet Union.

Higuchi with Judith and Peter Freeman, sponsors of the Resident Scholar Program.

Higuchi with Judith and Peter Freeman, sponsors of the Resident Scholar Program.

Though the Fallout Suits did not succeed, Higuchi argues that they did help establish a template for later successful activism. In a literal sense, Vietnam War-era litigation concerning the harmful effects of Agent Orange did gain traction as did other efforts carried out by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. Furthermore, in terms of constructing a narrative powerful enough to grasp the imagination of large groups of people, Higuchi points out that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, just four years after the Fallout Suits were filed, draws many comparisons between the deleterious effects of DDT and earlier claims regarding nuclear fallout issued by Pauling and others.  Clearly, while the Suits themselves did not meet with success, their impact was felt for many years to follow.

To learn more about the Fallout Suits, read this draft press release announcing the suits, as included on our website Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.  A profile of Dr. Burt Davis, an earlier recipient of the Resident Scholarship, is available here.