Corrections or additions?
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.
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
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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