Liquid crystals - Display genius no match for petty politics

How the LCD lost its Daddy

Happy Birthday, IC George Heilmeier is widely known as the father of the LCD. But he abandoned his liquid crystal baby nearly forty years ago.

In 1964, as a researcher at RCA's corporate lab in Princeton, New Jersey, Heilmeier uncovered the electro-optical properties of molecular and liquid crystals. And four years later, at an RCA press conference in New York City, he showed the world the first crude forerunners of today's ubiquitous liquid crystal displays.

But by 1970, as his liquid crystals languished amidst the petty internal politics at RCA, Heilmeier left his seminal research behind. And if he looks back, it's only because he's encouraged to. Asked if he feels a certain pride when he walks into one of those massive electronics retailers where countless LCD TVs line the walls, he demurs.

"To be honest with you, that's something for my grandchildren to do," he tells The Register. "Not me."

But his grandchildren aren't the only ones who appreciate George Heilmeier's contribution to modern display technology. This Saturday night, as Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum celebrates the 50th anniversary of the integrated circuit, Heilmeier will join fourteen other IC pioneers as a new inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The IC-happy class of 2009 also includes Intel co-founder Gordon Moore; Gordon Teal, who built the first silicon transistor; and Carver Mead, who not only invented VLSI chip design but juiced Gordon Moore's fame in coining the term Moore's Law.

George Heilmeier was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of two German immigrants who never went to high school. But he eventually graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and would go on to earn three more degrees from Princeton University. "My father was a janitor, and he and my mother never got past the eighth grade," he says. "But they wanted for me what they never had."

At Princeton in the mid-50s, when most IC research focused on single-crystal silicon and germanium, Heilmeier's doctoral thesis explored the possibilities of organic semiconductors. This included work on the transport properties of molecular crystals and thin-film devices, and after he joined RCA Laboratories, just down the road from the university, the thesis resurfaced.

In the early 60s, Heilmeier and his fellow researchers were looking for a way to modulate lasers for communication purposes. "I reopened the issue of molecular crystals," he says. "I had done my thesis on transport properties of molecular crystals, and we were thinking about building semi-conductor devices at that time, and I thought 'Maybe I'll look at electro-optics and see if there's anything there that might lead to a reasonable modulation scheme.'"

Instead, he uncovered a new display technology. The electro-optical properties of molecular crystals were more extreme than he expected. If he applied an electric field, the molecules would align, and when they aligned, their electro-optical properties would change. If he doped them with dye, they would even change color.

"You take two pieces of glass with a transparent conductive coating on them and you put the liquid crystal between the two pieces of glass, with a thickness of, say, 25 microns. Then you apply an electric field, and lo and behold: very interesting things happen," he says.

"I thought 'This might make this a very interesting display device.' By golly, you could change colors with a relatively low voltage - which would suggest that integrated circuits could do the addressing."

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