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The Incredible Ovshinsky Affair
September 1969 Electronics Illustrated

September 1969 Electronics Illustrated

September 1969 Electronics Illustrated Cover - RF CafeTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Electronics Illustrated, published May 1958 - November 1972. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Even with having been granted more than 400 patents in his lifetime, and being a major player in the realms of energy, data storage, and semiconductor research and manufacturing, you - as well as most people - have probably never heard the name Stanford Ovshinsky. He was somewhat of a celebrity in the 1960s and 1970s when working hard to promote his concept of "glassy semiconductors," - aka Ovonic devices. Ovonics are amorphous materials that are used for making switches for digital logic and memory devices. Either the Ovshinsky process did not pan out for high volume commercial production or some other technology displaced the what it was hoped to dominate.

Not too long ago when watching an episode of original The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series, the Ovshinsky Effect was mentioned by Illya Kuryakin when watching it after having read this article in a 1969 issue of Electronics Illustrated magazine. Ironically enough, all The Man from U.N.C.L.E. shows were titled in the manner of "The <something> Affair," which is the title of this article (although that was not the title of the show in which it was mentioned. 

Here are a couple contemporary articles about the man: The Most Important Inventor You've Never Heard Of (Scientific American c2018), and Stanford Ovshinsky Might Be the Most Prolific Inventor You've Never Heard Of (The Smithsonian c2018).

Wave the magic wand of electronics and Wall Street comes running

The Incredible Ovshinsky Affair, September 1969 Electronics Illustrated - RF CafeBy Jame Lydon

If you've got it, flaunt it. So say the ads. Stanford R. Ovshinsky isn't the most humble person around in the scientific community today, but why should he be? He may have one of the best things going in semiconductor electronics. Then again, he may not. Even the professionals are undecided at this moment.

Mr. Ovshinsky is the author of several papers on glassy semiconductors - also called Ovonic devices - that exhibit what he has termed the Ovshinsky Effect. The big guns in the semiconductor industry (Bell Labs, RCA, Texas Instruments, etc.) have been working on glass devices off and on since the early sixties but Ovshinsky seems to be the first to have made a full-time thing of it. Now that he has announced the Ovshinsky Effect and its future applications, many people in the scientific and technical-press communities are mad at him for not telling it like they think it really is.

Glass semiconductors differ from the silicon and germanium materials you are familiar with. Silicon and germanium are crystalline substances which provide an abundance or lack of electrons at positive-negative junctions. Current flows according to the bias placed on the junction. Glass semiconductors, however, are amorphous (disordered) materials. They exhibit a high resistance to applied signals until a critical voltage (dependent on the design) appears at the two terminals of the glass layer; at this point resistance practically disappears. Thus, an Ovonic device acts like a semiconductor switch. You turn it on or off by applying the correct voltage. Also, the devices are said to be unaffected by radiation - a possible point of interest for the military.

Problem is, glass semiconductors work according to little known principles so the whole thing is highly theoretical. The technology of amorphous materials is not fully understood (crystal growers, take note!) and it is impossible to reproduce stable devices with any uniformity. This puts the Ovshinsky Effect back in time to when the transistor was still suffering growing pains. At the moment many experts are disenchanted with Ovonics. Its sudden presentation to the press on Friday, Nov. 8, 1968, had a lot to do with this state of affairs.

Presentation is the key word. These days, how you sell an item is just as important as the worth of your product. Part of this hectic scene is the press kit. Between pieces of glossy cardboard bearing a company's name, reams of data sheets, photographs and other miscellaneous and sundry items are stuffed until the folder will hold no more.

Such was the package that greeted a few technically unprepared reporters at the November 8 press conference sponsored by Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., the company headed by Mr. Ovshinsky. Since only 11 of 25 reporters invited from the consumer press showed up, remaining press kits were mailed to publications selected with great care.

When scientists at Bell Telephone Labs picked up a copy of the New York Times on the following Monday (Veteran's Day), they were probably mesmerized by a three-column headline on the front page which heralded a new era in physics.

Stanford Ovshinsk - RF Cafe

Headed for a Nobel Prize? Stanford Ovshinsky was so photographed on Nov. 11, 1968 after his company, Energy Conversion Devices (located at Troy, Mich.), held a press conference to announce the development of Ovonlc devices. After initial fever hit Wall Street and certain members of the press, Ovonics soon cooled down to a point where a deep freeze finally set in. Just what the outcome will be is anyone's guess.  (UPI Photo)

According to the Times story, the phenomenon whereby glass becomes a semiconductor was called the Ovshinsky Effect; and it had thus far yielded switches, computer memories and thin-film semiconductors, the latter having been heretofore considered impossible in the industry. These Ovonic devices were termed a breakthrough in a new branch of physics that would make possible a whole new line of ultra-miniature gizmos - desk top computers, flat TV sets you can hang on your wall, ultra-fast switches, everything for a better world.

Shades of Shockley! The Bell scientists probably recalled that the announcement of their transistor some 20 years ago got a mere four in. of space on the inside pages of the Times. And the transistor effect was hot news at the time.

In Washington, one could imagine Russian diplomats scanning the front page of the Washington Post for news of the Paris peace talks. You guessed it! They read still another angle on the same story - a glass mini-switch had been announced at a press conference in Troy, Michigan. This story implied that the new device was a forerunner of a revolution in electronics similar to that started by the transistor. It probably appeared to the Russians and some other foreign diplomats that the Americans had again widened the technology gap.

On Wall Street the quiet of the holiday was shattered by a banner headline in the esteemed Wall Street Journal which pulled readers into a story announcing cheap, easy-to-make glass versions of transistors. Investment brokers, mutual fund managers, bank clerks and elevator operators underlined the name of Energy Conversion Devices and started a telephone marathon that would last well into the week. Indeed, the one-two punch of the Times and WSJ stories was enough to drop the stock values of virtually every major semiconductor manufacturer when the exchanges opened the following day.

Throughout the country the story of the new science was told by the 11 odd reporters who had been among the select group at the Troy press parley. The Boston Globe, aiming for the egghead community of MIT and Harvard. proclaimed that Ovshinsky had made a discovery "missed by the world's great industrial laboratories and university physicists." Filled with pride, the Detroit News sounded off with "Troy Ovonics Inventor Eyed for Nobel Prize." Finally, Suburban America was filled in by the Associated Press which put the story on its wire.

Only a monetary crisis in France could knock the story off the front pages of the Paris Herald; yet it had no trouble biting a good swatch of newsprint inside. The Herald picked up the Times story and ran it whole - the Ovshinsky effect had become a snowball effect, adhering to a little known law of Newton that publicity begets more publicity unless acted upon by an external fact. Feedback from the tidal wave was not long in coming.

Phones rang all day at Energy Conversion Devices in Troy. Ovshinsky - overwhelmed by sudden fame - had a tough time handling the calls. A Milan magazine called about an interview, an Australian News service asked for a taped report, radio reporters from CBS sought material, and invitations to speak at universities poured in. Was impresario Sol Hurok waiting in the wings?

The Dow Jones News Service (in a frenzy of activity after the Times and WSJ stories) began to record the scramble for Energy Conversion stock that occurred when the Street opened for business Tuesday. Traded over-the-counter ECD shares opened at 105 from a low of 58 on the previous Friday. The asking price soared to 150 before trading ended; small fortunes were won and lost almost instantaneously before some Tuesday afternoon quarterbacking knocked the price of ECD down to 75 - still much higher than the pre-press conference price.

The first of the more cautious quarterbacks was Bache & Co., which issued a caveat to its investors on the basis of a dubious attitude that its investigators found among experts in the electronics industry.

Meanwhile, financial reporters for the Times (who not too willingly inherited the follow-up assignments from the Science desk) started a probe but were unable to come up with much support for the enthusiasm of the Monday story. Ovonic devices, they found, were apparently not up to snuff, and a licensing agreement between ECD and ITT (cited in the initial story) had gone a little sour. If there were red faces around the Science desk they were to get redder still.

The Wall Street Journal, homing in on fiscal aspects, reported in its follow-up that Energy Conversion was up tight, having sustained sizable losses during the last two years. Most of the firm's income, the Journal said, was derived from private investors and contracts. The company had only one profitable year in its eight years of operation, the WSJ noted dryly.

As the Times and WSJ continued to examine and meditate upon the Ovonic Wonder, Newsweek magazine, with more lead time, checked with its own inputs and discovered that the technical press had not been invited to the Troy press conference. For some reason, a subject as abstruse as amorphous semiconductors was restricted to the lay press. It was almost like inviting Better Homes and Gardens to speed trials at Indy.

Why trade and technical reporters were snubbed was soon to emerge much to the discomfort of the national press. For what had been brought back from Troy as hot copy had actually been circulating for years in the staid pages of trade magazines. Over the past five years Ovshinsky had been plying trade journals with reports of his efforts in glassy materials, explaining their potential use as semiconductors. He had examined hundreds of compositions and had worked relentlessly to build practical devices since founding the company in 1960.

An in-depth piece on the Ovonic switch ran four years ago in Control Engineering Magazine. About this time, Ovshinsky began an advertising campaign in several trade journals wherein he described his devices and invited readers to send for a brochure on basic Ovonic principles. To reach a broader audience, the advertisement also ran in Scientific American in December 1964.

Two years later, Electronics, another industry magazine, carried a detailed feature on Ovshinsky's new science and its alleged promise. The term Ovshinsky Effect was used here for the first time. The article emphasized the fact that Ovshinsky was far from alone in the field and that research at Bell Labs had created a rather volatile patent situation.

Despite this publicity, much of which he generated himself at seminars and meetings of professional societies, Ovshinsky was unable to get a rise out of the electronics industry. There was no backlog of orders at Troy. No one was knocking down his doors.

Confident, and still trying to get Energy Conversion into the black, the 46-year old, self-educated inventor renewed his advertising campaign in the fall of 1967 by running three full-page display ads in Electronics, Control Engineering and Scientific American. The copy this time stated the speeds of his switches and proclaimed the new field of Ovonic physics and technology. A photo of the switch in the advertisement was later handed out at the press conference - a cardinal sin in any press agent's book.

It is not an unfair assumption that if trade and technical reporters had been present at the Troy briefing they would have tempered much of the hysteria that appeared in Monday's newspapers. Indeed, the more journalists studied the circumstances of the press conference, the more it took on the guise of a vacuum. To begin with, it had been held on the eve of a three-day holiday weekend; there was no opportunity for the reporters to check out the claims with leading industrial organizations. Since only 11 reporters had the story none of them could afford to sit on it without risk of being scooped. It was a case of mass psychology, par excellence.

Ovshinsky claims to have had a good reason for choosing Friday. On the following Monday the details of his Ovonic theory (explaining the materials he was working with and had recently patented) were to appear in the Physical Review Letters, a highly respected organ of the American Physical Society. Being published in the Letters, for a non-physicist, was no mean accomplishment and Ovshinsky felt some chest-pounding was justified.

The only snag was that while a copy of the PRL paper was in the press kit, its jargon was beyond the grasp of the reporters. Anticipating this, a ten-page explanation of the treatise was also in the kit and in plainer language it unfolded the story of Ovonics, much of which was by now old hat. Probably an all-time record for length, it was lifted almost bodily into newspaper stories. No one took the time to examine the copy.

If Ovshinsky had anything going for him that Friday, it was undoubtedly the all-star cast of physicists, including a Nobel laureate, which endorsed his work. Three of them briefed reporters at the conference and it appeared to bother no one that one was an officer of the company and the others, consultants to ECD (one a shareholder).

Though Ovshinsky was stunned by the magnitude of the press coverage - "I had expected a blurb in the Sunday papers," he said afterward - he did not help his cause any by refusing to say who was buying his Ovonic devices, reportedly being turned out at the rate of 150,000 a day at Troy. This prompted Newsweek to ask in its weekend story, "Did Ovshinsky have anything or didn't he?"

Top brass at some of our country's leading daily papers, a trifle anxious over the stock market reaction, undoubtedly put the same question to their science editors.

The New York Times Science desk, however, stuck to its guns. "In my opinion, the Ovshinsky story merited page one on the basis of his paper in the Physical Review Letters, said Henry Lieberman, chief of the Times science desk. "My reporter tried to check it out at Bell Labs but they gave him a lot of double talk. I called them myself and they were afraid to say anything for publication." Mr. Lieberman added that the Times "was only interested in the scientific aspects of Ovshinsky's work and not the technology, and if 20 physicists think it's great stuff, that's good enough for me."

George Trigg, senior editor at Physical Review Letters, noted that when the Ovshinsky manuscript was submitted it was assumed the work had no previous history, at least not on the scale that was later discovered. "If we had known that some of it had appeared in advertisements we would have turned it down," said Trigg. Apparently the referees at PRL were caught napping.

In any event, there emerged out of it all an exuberant inventor - a high school drop-out-whose name and company were catapulted around the world in no more time than it takes to write a headline.



Posted April 19, 2024
(updated from original post on 8/6/2018)

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