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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the August 7, 2002 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Television On A Wall Becomes A Reality

Back in 1950, David Sarnoff asked his researchers to

put television on a wall. RCA’s chief executive did not live to see

the medium he pioneered mounted flush over mantels, but his vision

has become a reality — and is now on sale at electronic stores

across the country. Alex Magoun, executive director of the David

Sarnoff Library, explains that the technology that makes the feat

possible is liquid-crystal display, most commonly referred to as LCD.

"We take LCDs for granted in laptop computers," Magoun points

out. And before they made portable computing possible, LCDs showed

up on watches and calculators. On Thursday, August 8, at 8 p.m., the

Sarnoff library hosts "From Princeton to Japan to the World: The

Invention of Liquid-Crystal Displays," a free talk by Hiro

Kawamoto. Call 609-734-2636.

Kawamoto received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer

science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1970. For

the next 10 years he was a member of the technical staff at RCA’s

David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton. From 1980 to 1985, he

founded and ran Sony’s consumer electronics laboratory in Paramus,

and, at the same time, founded the Princeton Community Japanese Language

School. Between 1985 and 2001 he opened Sharp Corporation Laboratories

of Europe and America. He lives in Japan, where he owns a consulting

firm, Josephus International.

Kawamoto is traveling from Japan, en route to California, to give

this talk. It is based on "The History of Liquid-Crystal Displays,"

a paper he wrote on the subject. Here is an excerpt:

The development of liquid-crystal displays (LCD) proceeded

from early successes like the pocket calculator to the major milestone

of flat-panel television display you can hang on the wall. The history

of that development spans the world’s major industrial centers: the

U.S., Japan, and Europe.

I was fortunate to be a part of that history. When I joined RCA Laboratories

at the David Sarnoff Research Center in 1970, RCA was curtailing its

efforts in liquid-crystal activities, but I had the opportunity to

witness the development there before the program’s group head, George

Heilmeier, left for Capitol Hill as a White House Fellow. Then, in

1985, I joined the Sharp Corporation in Japan and met Tomio Wada,

the man who developed the world’s first liquid-crystal product, a

pocket calculator, in 1973.

In 1990 I participated in the founding of the European Laboratories

in Oxford, and in 1992 we welcomed Peter Raynes, known for his contributions

to the applications of cyanobiphenyls, to the laboratories. Through

discussions with him, I learned about the achievements of British

and European scientists.

The modern history of liquid crystals is predominantly the history

of the development of electronic displays made of liquid crystals.

The developments started when a dynamic-scattering mode (DSM) was

discovered in 1964. Manufacturers of LCDs had been minor league members

of the electronic display industry and served a niche market, supplying

small-size displays primarily to the pocket calculators and digital

watches. A major milestone was reached in 1988 when a 14-inch active

matrix thin-film transistor display was demonstrated. The electronics

industries then recognized that the dream of wall-hanging television

had become a reality, thus, promoting LCD manufacturers to the major

leagues in the electronics industry.

By 2000 the LCD industry had caught up to the giant cathode ray tube

(CRT) industry. What had been an obscure general and scientific curiosity

for 80 years suddenly became the center of attention as the result

of a new invention, spawning a new industry projected to reach $40

billion by the year 2006.

The history of LCDs is a story of hard work, disappointments, and

successes of worldwide competition and cooperation. Each industrial

center contributed its strengths: in America, it was the quickness

of forming new ideas and demonstrating their feasibility; in Europe,

it was the fundamental science and synthesis of basic materials; and

in Japan, it was the process of perfecting implementation and moving

it to the production line.

On May 28, 1968, RCA held a press conference at its headquarters at

Rockefeller Plaza. They proudly announced the discovery of a totally

new type of electronic display. The display was dramatically different

from traditional CRTs. It was lightweight, consumed little electrical

power, and was very thin. The press conference drew the attention

of scientific and industrial communities all over the world. This

announcement initiated the development of digital watches in the U.S.,

Japan, and Germany, and the work on pocket calculators in Japan. At

the same time, it led to further scientific work in Germany, Switzerland,

and the U.K. — particularly in the synthesis of the new liquid-crystal

materials suitable for use in display applications.

Naturally, Heilmeir (an engineer who received his Princeton Ph.D.

under RCA Laboratories sponsorship) wanted to see his invention evolve

into RCA products. He went to company headquarters and convinced RCA

to go into the business of LCDs. The task was given to the Solid-State

Division in Somerville, which was responsible for the design and production

of semiconductor devices. However, Heilmeier quickly received negative

responses from the naysayers. Liquid crystals were not "silicon."

They were "dirty" by semiconductor standards. They were liquids.

They were too easily duplicated. They were said to be difficult to

make. These were some of the many reasons the product division gave

for its failure to commercialize LCDs.

At the time, RCA owned a substantial amount of business in CRTs. Top

management eventually rejected the idea of LCDs because they represented

a threat to their existing CRT business. According to Heilmeir, "the

people who were asked to commercialize (the technology) saw it as

a distraction to their main electronic focus." In 1970 he gave

up, accepting an appointment as a White House Fellow working in the

Department of Defense. Later, he became the president of Bell Communication

Research, the research arm of the Baby Bells. In 1987 RCA Laboratories

merged with Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California.

Richard Williams (an RCA researcher who worked with liquid crystals),

when recalling the early days, has said, "If it had continued

the work, RCA would have never achieved a commercial success."

It had to await the development of liquid-crystal materials and amorphous

silicon technologies, both of which were yet to come from Europe.

Those developments altogether have taken a quarter of a century. Heilmeir

would not have achieved success had he stayed with liquid-crystal


Even so, Kawamoto writes that RCA missed out on the

commercialization possibilities of a technology that is quickly winning

favor with consumers. So great is the appeal of outsized-flat-panel

televisions that, according to a recent spate of newspaper articles,

architects, home builders, and furniture makers are rushing to keep

up, to figure out how way-outsized televisions can possibly be made

at home in the living room.

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