Analogy and Cognitive Style in the Process of Invention: The Roots of Inventor Stanford Ovshinsky’s Alternative Energy Genius
Department of History, University of Illinois
Studies in cognitive science show analogy to be a motor of cognition. This talk argues that analogy may also be among the most important motors of human invention. The career of the self-educated tool-maker Stanford Ovshinsky, in time a prolific Detroit-based inventor, illustrates how cross-disciplinary analogy-making can lead to pioneering invention. By analogically linking fields that academics with advanced disciplinary training see as separate, Ovshinsky drew what he saw as reasonable analogies between structures that others saw located in different domains—domains as separate as machines and nerve cells. Based on his deep study of various areas—cybernetics, machines. neuroscience, and neural disease—Ovshinsky developed a crucial analogy between a nerve cell and a switch. The analogy led him to discover a class of amorphous and disordered materials with which he then invented numerous energy and information devices which are in widespread use today (including the first phase-change switches, the nickel metal hydride battery, rewritable CDs and DVDs, flat screen liquid crystal displays, and thin-film amorphous silicon solar panels).