ANALOGY AND INVENTION IN THE HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY: THE IMPLICATIONS OF STANFORD OVSHINSKY'S NERVE CELL ANALOGY
Analogy has been an important theme in cognitive science for some years, but historians of technology have paid little attention to this subject despite the productive use that many inventors, including Edison and the Wrights, made of analogy. During her Center appointment Professor Hoddeson will work with cognitive scientists to investigate analogy as a motor of invention, building on a study of a prolific American inventor of energy and information technologies who employed analogy in a dramatic way.
The fact that Stanford Ovshinsky, a self-educated machinist and tool-maker with no formal training beyond high school, typically invented by drawing analogies between widely separated domains (e.g.,machines and cells) makes him an interesting case study for an historian. In his early career Ovshinsky was obsessed with making machines “intelligent.” Reading widely in the literatures of cybernetics, neuroscience, and neural disease, while also studying mammalian nerve cells experimentally, Ovshinsky developed an analogy between a nerve cell and an electronic control device. Realizing that the plasticity of the cell membrane is the basis of its learning, and that the membrane’s disordered structure offers this capability, Ovshinsky stumbled on the new scientific field of amorphous and disordered solids. His work resulted in numerous practical technologies, including switches, an environmentally friendly nickel metal hydride battery, rewritable CDs and DVDs, flat-screen monitors, and flexible solar panels. Some writers predict that these, along with Ovshinsky's more radical inventions that have not yet found widespread use (his cognitive computer and hydrogen car) will help solve today’s fossil-fuel crisis. Professor Hoddeson plans to spend extended periods in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, studying the endangered documentation of Ovshinsky’s inventive work.