Do You Know Oleg Losev? An Engineer Tragically Ahead Of His Time

It is so often the case with a particular technological advance, that it will be invented almost simultaneously by more than one engineer or scientist. People seem to like a convenient tale of a single inventor, so one such person is remembered while the work of all the others who trod the same path is more obscure. Sometimes the name we are familiar with simply managed to reach a patent office first, maybe they were the inventor whose side won their war, or even they could have been a better self-publicist.

When there are close competitors for the crown of inventor then you might just have heard of them, after all they will often feature in the story that grows up around the invention. But what about someone whose work happened decades before the unrelated engineer who replicated it and who the world knows as the inventor? They are simply forgotten, waiting in an archive for someone to perhaps discover them and set the record straight.

Oleg Losev (Public domain)
[Oleg Losev] (Public domain)
Meet [Oleg Losev]. He created the first practical light-emitting diodes and the first semiconductor amplifiers in 1920s Russia, and published his results. Yet the world has never heard of him and knows the work of unrelated American scientists in the period after the Second World War as the inventors of those technologies. His misfortune was to born in the wrong time and place, and to be the victim of some of the early twentieth century’s more turbulent history.

[Oleg Losev] was born in 1903, the son of a retired Russian Imperial Army officer. After the Russian Revolution he was denied the chance of a university education, so worked as a technician first at the Nizhny Novgorod Radio laboratory, and later at the Central Radio Laboratory in Leningrad. There despite his  relatively lowly position he was able to pursue his research interest in semiconductors, and to make his discoveries.

Losev’s LED

When experimenting with a point-contact semiconductor junction on silicon carbide and zinc oxide crystals, he observed a greenish light emission from the junction. This had been observed before but not characterised, and he was able to prove that it was not a thermal effect before postulating that it might have its source in a quantum mechanism.

He continued to work on the effect, but because of the chosen semiconductor materials he was unable to significantly increase its light output. Without enough intensity to rival other lamps of the day it failed to attract enough interest despite his publishing multiple papers detailing his work and its applications. It was left to [Robert Baird] and [Gary Pittman] at Texas Instruments in the 1960s to pick up the baton with their infra-red LED, and for [Nick Holonyak] at General Electric to produce one with visible light shortly afterwards.

Semiconductor Amplifiers And More

An oscillator built to [Losev]'s zincite negative resistance diode design.
An oscillator built to [Losev]’s zincite negative resistance diode design.
Hugo Gernsback [Public domain]

The detectors in many radio receivers of the day were simple “Cat’s Whisker” devices, point contact diodes where the junction was formed between a piece of wire and a naturally occurring crystal. It had been noticed that when a DC bias was used with these devices to overcome their forward voltage drop and make them more sensitive, it could occasionally cause the circuit to oscillate. [Losev] became interested in this phenomenon, and identified it as negative resistance, a semiconductor property whereby the curve has a region that behaves opposite to Ohm’s Law with current through it decreasing as voltage increases.

He was able to make reliable negative resistance diodes using zinc oxide crystals, and to configure them as oscillators and amplifiers in the same way as we might now with a more recent tunnel diode. As well as oscillators and amplifiers he created solid state radio receivers, both regenerative and superhetrodyne, several decades before [John Bardeen], [William Shockley], and [Walter Brattain] invented the first transistor at Bell Labs in 1948.

The Soviet authorities did not see the potential in this most exciting of inventions because [Losev]’s diodes could not replicate the performance of the tubes of the day, so given that the zinc oxide crystals were an expensive import from the USA the project was shelved. It was left to [Leo Esaki] at Sony in 1957 to rediscover negative resistance diodes with his discovery of electron tunneling, for which he later received a Nobel Prize.

[Losev]’s tale is a succession of moments of what might have been. He found himself trapped in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, when it was besieged by the Germans in 1942, and like many others in the city he died of starvation. It is reported that before his death he was working on a three-terminal semiconductor amplifier device, which might have delivered the transistor to the Soviets years before it was invented by the Americans.

If [Losev]’s story has interested you, have a look at our profile of another largely unsung hero of early electronics: [Rufus Turner].

73 thoughts on “Do You Know Oleg Losev? An Engineer Tragically Ahead Of His Time

  1. This story reminds me of Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem. The protagonist lives in a society so socialist that their vocabulary has lost singular pronouns. The society is lit by candles and he goes off on his own (crime number one) and invents (crime number 2) a light bulb. He returns and shows his work to the leaders and their response is that the light bulb would ruin their candle industry, and that they can’t look past his crimes in coming up with it.

    1. While his experiments may have been in keeping with the scientific journalism word game, his results weren’t practical. This story (scientist comes up with X years prior to the more recognized discovery of practical X) repeats itself in capitalist societies, mind you. Would probably blame timing and not some Ayn Rand delusion.

    2. Yes that sounds like Ayn Rand. Don’t know what it have to do with this topic, I could find better likenesses in amateur Mary-Sue stories (and generally get a better story than the idiotic crap Ayn Rand produced).

        1. The problem with anyone who declares themselves as “living by reason” is the verification of their own premises, which necessarily happens through a process of reasoning that your reasoning is reasonable. As you already declare yourself reasonable, you cannot come to any other conclusion than “I must be correct”.

          Ayn Rand never did solve the is-ought problem. She simply took the utility of absolute selfishess as an “objective fact”, ignored any contradicting evidence or argument, and turned it into a moral maxim as if it was a law of God. Then she wrote miles of boring prose for strawmen that expose why she is right – if everyone just behaved like sociopaths, like they should.

          1. Yes, I understand. Post-modern philosophers say it is all wrong with nothing to offer but relativism. And it isn’t so simple as “law of God”. There are crazy axioms like: existence exists and what is is, or A is A as the objectivists like to say.

            The rest you must be getting from the fiction or second hand from some professor. I don’t follow. The “sociopath” is apt if you mean anti-socialism. Otherwise, I assume it is a misrepresentation of “selfishness”. What used to be called enlightened self interest. Are you selfless?

          2. “Post-modern philosophers say…”

            You don’t have to bring postmodernism into it. Just observe points like the selfish gene: the individual person being the unit of evolution creates paradoxes and inefficiencies that, as they are attempted by organisms will simply get weeded out by natural selection. That has resulted in the evolution of unconscious altruism – not because it’s a universally correct state of being, but because it’s a possible state of being.

            That also means the preferences and attitudes and reasons we have are not our own doing and reasoning, but at least partially inherited from our biological past – and some we inherit from our culture – what people like Jung would have recognized as the “collective unconscious”. There’s scarecely an original idea in anyone, except by coincidence and accident. Ex nihilo nihil fit – you aren’t really the author of even your own thoughts.

            Then the question becomes, who is the self that is interested? Whose interest do you serve if all your reasons are not your own doing? You want to eat to survive, but why do you want to survive? What’s the point of it? Since you can’t ascribe your genes, the law of physics, or the immaterial phenomenon of culture any mind or reason, then you’re in trouble identifying the object of this “enlightened self-interest”.

            So am I selfless? Well, you tell me who exactly I am, and we’ll see. Mistaking the interested being to be the individual person like Ayn Rand does with her Rational Egoism, is not enlightenment but ignorance to the point of extreme narcissism – hence why the accusation of sociopathy.

            And there’s nothing wrong with relativism. Simply because something is subjective doesn’t make it unreal or something to be ignored. If it has an effect, it exists. We do not need to derive our morals from “objective” universal absolutes, moreso because it happens to be impossible thanks to Hume’s guillotine.

          3. Or to be more precise:

            Rand maintains that a rational man holds his own life as his highest value, rationality as his highest virtue, and his happiness as the final purpose of his life. She argued it is both irrational and immoral to act against this maxim, and this can be discovered by the rational observation of the nature of reality itself.

            Meanwhile Hume points out that you can’t actually draw any such rational conclusions – what is cannot dictate what ought to be, which makes Rand’s proposition thoroughly irrational.

          4. Wow. And that is why math works.

            You should have had some classes with David Berlinsky in your formative years. Or maybe not. Collective unconscious? Well, beards and goatees are back, so why not?

          5. >”Collective unconscious? Well, beards and goatees are back, so why not?”

            Of course course Jungian psychology is generally speaking bunk, but the concept remains: the collective unconscious is the set of instincts and attitudes which we inherit from other people, which combine with our direct personal experiences to ground the symbols that we use for rational thinking. Without that non-rational ground of the unconsious, all our rational thinking would be about nothing at all: just a mindless manipulation of symbols that refer to other symbols that refer to other symbols, and we would be like computer programs. Actually, we wouldn’t be at all because there would be no reason to act: without the “animal drive” we would not be making up symbols to manipulate in the first place.

            So when Rand is saying “a leaf can’t be all red and green simultaneously” to argue that all things are either this or that but not both, she’s using symbols that are grounded in her subjective experiences of color that makes those symbols logically exclusive. To her a leaf can’t be “green” and “red” at the same time because she cannot concieve the experience, yet without that special consideration there is no rational reason why “red” and “green” couldn’t apply at the same time.

            In fact a leaf can be simultaneously all red and all green – we call that experience “yellow” or “brown” – and in any case, colors do not actually exist. They’re not objective facts of nature. When you look at what’s actually -objectively- there, independent of your society, culture, your person, your sensory organs etc. almost everything about reality dissapears.

            In this way, Rand’s whole philosophy is elevating subjective experiences and inferences about the world into the status of objective reality, almost as if she didn’t consider or think it possible to have any other mind than her own – which is a classical sign of a sociopath.

        2. “Smells like a virtue signal”

          Oh, boy. Nobody can sincerely disagree with you. They must not really mean what they say and are probably just saying it for effect. Is that your claim?

          Well, Spock, he who lives solely by reason, let me tell you you are unreasonable (and uncharitable) to assume you are the only person who has reasons for what they believe.

          1. Spock is an altruist, with the sacrifice of the few for the good of the many. He is also the figment of a writer’s mind. You can have reasons for “altruism” but they will be selfish.

          2. >”You can have reasons for “altruism” but they will be selfish.”

            You can also have no reasons for altruism, and yet it exists. Nature doesn’t do things for reasons, because it does everything that is possible – what remains is the result of that which wasn’t.

    3. This is precisely how socialism worked. In Poland under Russian occupation it was mandated by the party what you could do and how you did it. Some ambitious people tried to innovate, but they were simply crushed by the machine. Russians forced Comecon asset and industry segmentation on all occupied territories, everything managed by decrees. Computers – forced RIAD (ibm 360 ripoff/clones) and killed homegrown designs like mentioned last week K-202 (faster/smaller/cheaper, designer ended up raising pigs on a farm). Cars – again killed or stole good designs, Polish FSO Warszawa 210 prototype was shipped to Russia to become Volga GAZ-24…

      1. Soviet socialism was basically just pure machiavellism – its purpose was to prevent the accumulation and concentration of wealth and power in the Soviet vassal states that the Russian elite were using as their source of resources.

        They deported people across the union to break up national and ethnic identities, forced everyone to adopt the Russian language, destroyed culture and heritage, they murdered intellectuals, engineers, academics, philosophers, artists… all to break the spirit of the subjugated people and put them into a position where they had no individual power or collective organization to negotiate with the central government and threaten the elite rule.

        That’s why people complain that the Soviet Union wasn’t really socialism/communism, but simply fascism under another flag.

        1. Sounds a lot like the snowflakes at our college campuses. And marx/English advocated things like genocide. Just because Hitler and Stalin used similar tactics didn’t make them mates

          1. Yep, and Lenin developed Marxism to the point of “vanguard communism” which finally turned it into the self-righteous elitist rule that ultimately doomed it to corruption.

            >”Just because Hitler and Stalin used similar tactics didn’t make them mates”

            True, but the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact did.

    4. Had he been an inventor in the US, he would have probably ended up working for Edison or an industrial corporation and in either event would have signed away his rights for the invention to a corporation. At best, he would get a tie pin from corporate office, an award dinner and $250. He would be patted on the back, and told, “attaboy, back to the labs now sonny”.

    5. Just because they couldn’t provide him with expensive crystals? In a capitalist Russia someone with his class and background he would be a poor peasant working 14 hours a day…

        1. Soviet Union was as much aggressor as was the Third Reich at time. Unfortunately they were allowed to keep their practice after the war and that took life of additional multiple millions through murder and slave labor. I still pity the innocent people both sides who were the receiving end of this terror.

        2. it wasn’t that simplistic, going by your own logic of aggressor vs defender: to understand WW II, and the interbellum period, you first need to understand how germany was treated after it’s defeat in WW I, and the exact cause of WW I is a lot less clear cut… I agree with jacques1956: “Wars are always terrible crimes”

      1. “Wars are always terribles crimes.”
        WRONG Jacques. WAR is all about ONE thing – WINNING! Winning as fast as possible with minimal loss of life and treasure on either side. Anything in-between turns into a politically-correct endless source of suffering for all involved. At least that’s the way it used to be…

    1. If it makes you feel any better..what Japan did to China was ‘worse (unit 731 etc)’, and i would say that to this day, Germany still gets painted as the worst(near only) criminal, for politcal reasons more than anything else.. dont you feel better already

      1. Without the US nuking Japan, I would not be here today. As the son of South Korean immigrants, I am eternally grateful the US for liberating Korea from Japanese rule. If the war was prolonged and ended in a conditional surrender, the Korean culture would cease to exist.

        1. US did NOT liberate Korea, Japanese withdrew after the peace treaty was signed. Japan capitulated after USSR declared war on it and liberated Manchuria. That, together with US killing about 150 000 people (mostly civilians) with 2 atomic bombs, compelled Japan to surrender.

          Reading Western sources you could really get the idea that Soviets and Chinese did not even fight, yet they are responsible for tying and destroying 80% of Axis forces. And for suffering most losses.

  2. Although it might not be the case here, I m always reading historic revelations with certain portion scepticism. There always will be someone who did the thing even earlier or did the same thing even better. On other hand, there is this famous quote of Albert Einstein: “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

    1. +1 You do much better if you have a theory that others can expand on or use to explore. “It was left to [Robert Baird] and [Gary Pittman] at Texas Instruments in the 1960s to pick up the baton with their infra-red LED, and for [Nick Holonyak] at General Electric to produce one with visible light shortly afterwards.” Pick up the baton is pretty strong. It directly implies they read his papers and continued from there. Though, they certainly might have.

      If he made Superhet and Regenerative Rx’s (20 year old ideas by WWII) with his diodes, I’m really surprised they didn’t go anywhere. Were they delicate and could not be moved?

  3. Sad story, “people’s revolutions” often turn out to be self inflicted cultural and scientific lobotomies, the same happened in Asia in more than one country. If Losev had the opportunity to go West history could have been very different. Then again if he ended up in German and they got the transistor in the 40’s that could have been a very bad thing. Computer guided V3 missiles over London etc….

      1. He was brilliant, but his inability to promote his work doesn’t prove that others would too. It is just as likely that the information would have fallen into the hands of somebody more industrious.

        1. Well, the German military funded the development of the Z2 and Z3 computers, which meant that people pretty high up the ladder were aware of the project, but it was eventually declared “strategically unimportant”. The Z3 prototype was destroyed in a bombing raid.

          Zuse also built the S1 and S2 computing machines which were used on guided glider bombs.

  4. Why does that seem to be repeated again and again in the story and the comments, “There is no value to that”. Makes you wonder what “worthless” technologies are languishing in labs around the world because they are of “no value”?

    1. Are you referring to the scientists and their work at the US EPA, or vaccine preventable diseases of early childhood and the review of immunization programs now underway in the US?

    2. or of concepts, inventions or ideas that simply needed material advancements or sufficient processing power to work. For an impractical example, most of the failed aircraft designs of old that we laugh at, could be made functional now with stronger materials, much higher density power sources and a few minor design tweaks. I bet there’s lots of mechanical oddities still that could be done electromechanically, or other concepts where the idea was useful but the implementation was way off base-like the gems dug up on The White Rabbit Project. We thought mobile phones would be long range radio but it was cell technology that changed things. Navigation straight outta the Batmobile has been common for decades thanks to GPS. I fly model aircraft that simply could not move under their own power without modern battery chemistries and lightweight plastics and foams. Ideas that “almost” worked in the dustiest bins of patent offices worldwide, should be reexamined.

      1. Hehehe, nice, man, very nice. The princess bride, I guess… Not too much time ago I watched again on tv. I remember well this character. Hehe, very nice. But, no, I made reference to a different guy, just because the topic was about being ahead of one’s own time.

        Just to give an example. Maybe you know IEEE. Nonetheless, it is up to you to look on internet for more information about him and his achievements.

        Thanks for your reply.

  5. To be a successful man, one have to make a 3 input LOGICAL AND:
    Be the RIGHT MAN (1), at the RIGHT MOMENT (2) in the RIGHT PLACE (3)
    If ONLY ONE of these inputs is 0 (zero), THEN the output will be ZERO

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