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."
People underestimate Baird
None of the copies of his "Televisor" seen in museums has one of his actual image sensors in it. He demonstrated both projection TV and full colour in the middle of WWII and was smart enough to decline the Governments request to "Leave it with them over night" when he demostrated it at (IIRC) the War Office. Why pay for something when (having taken it apart) you can tell the inventor "Our engineers are already working on this and assure us that we will have one like it shortly). His was the first live system that worked. Its poor performance was at least in part due the low frequency and narrow bandwidth the BBC allocated (after all TV looked like a passing fad). Incidently mechanically scanned systems persisted in IR for a long time. The Viking lander steroscopic cameras were also linescan sensors.
I note that for some time RCA fought a bitter patent dispute claiming that they had no idea of Farnsworth's work and their TV system was all the work of one of their emplyees, IIRC a Dr Emil Zworking. I seem to recall Farnsworth jumped out of a window before the (likely very expensive) lawsuit was settled in his favour. Bad luck for Farnsworth. Good luck for RCA.
Warning.. Old Timer blather ahead
I recall buying some of the new "Liquid Crystal" stuff in the late 60's and building heat activated changing displays.
I even had a backer, but he backed right out.
Another of my inventions required 3 or so years of prodding and begging to get the company (OLYMPUS) to manufacture it. (a video measurement system for aircraft engines.)
it just seems the the mindset that creates managers is totally distant from the mindset that creates innovation.
paris cause you don't have a Jamie Preston icon yet.
Because Baird's system was crap and based on someone elses crap ideas and quickly relegated to the dustbin
Farnsworth had been developing a cathode ray system on and off since high school, independantly of Bairds work and his television would have come about whether Baird had built his system or not.