back to article Liquid crystals - Display genius no match for petty politics

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 …

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We Were Burning

For a fantastic, if slightly borringly written, account of the development of LCDs in Japan read "We Were Burning : Japanese Entrepreneurs and the Forging of the Electronic Age "

Highly enjoyable if you rank high on the nerdscale.

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IT Angle

Back then

The only difference today is now all research is done at teh company.

From 1940's to 1960's pretty much all research was done in some house basement.

So this tells me the LCD inventor loved to tinker with electronics as a hobby as he grew up.

Sadly kids today only want rap,food and world of warcraft.

We are a brain dead society today.

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Anonymous Coward

Feeling old

I remember the local RCA agent here in NZ showing me a pair of demo LCD displays in about 1969 or 1970. One was transmissive, the other was reflective. Each was a single 7 segment digit, and they were each set up to just count 0 to 9. The digits would have been about an inch high.

Now my son has bought himself a 46 inch LCD TV to use with his X-box. Nobody in the house watches TV, but that is another story.

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@back then

No, back then a lot of research was done at Bell Labs, RCA, IBM and many other tech research shops. These are mostly gone now but today there is Google, Microsoft, and??. More research (porpotionatly) is done at Universities but a lot of that is useless crap done by grad students trying to get published.

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@ AC 20:45

bull we are bought up and taught science where we aren't allowed to touxch anything that may burn/spark/cause a slight emotional injury (so all of chemistry and physics ruled out) and then they wonder why the uk lacks Physics grads. (btw i'm not a phys student in anyway, i am studying network security at degree level)

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Boffin

Tomorrow's world.

Divits like me are still panning away at wierd ideas that are kookfests to most Usenet inhabitants.

But to us our little insights are golden.

Next time someone is belittling somebody on the Net, try and remember who is full of fat and fries, playing games and winning the real game of Loser.

One up for the management of monopolies. Nice to think that although Britain once lead the world in fatheads with large bases, the US have had their fair share of them too.

If any hardnosed cleverdicks on here read this, if you learn anything from it it should be:

Be Nice.

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Anonymous Coward

Useless management & useless degrees`

You would think that companies like RCA would have learned, but no they haven't, in fact more companies have learned that mediocrity wins. Very, very few companies take risks, or understand the technologies they use, believing that an MBA qualifies you to manage anything, but it doesn't. BTW, when I left Xerox in 1988 they had a colour inkjet that cost less than $100 to make, wonder hat happened to that, I expect they couldn't see a market, as usual.

Look at the banks, where management lost touch with their products, and just managed the money, and sadly there are just far too many companies that believe that is the way to do it. Set the targets, and sod the implementation, want to get to the top, play yhe politics not the products.

Oh, and Aldous, it's quite frightening that someone would do a degree in network security, sounds like a subject that's been thought up to provide the university with more passes, than one that actually adds anything to network security, unless they are also teaching you the advanced mathematical knowledge that you would need to identify threats and provide secure and unbreakable encryption.

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Stop

Maybe in the USA

He may be known as the father of the LCD in the USA, but there were plenty of non-Americans who studied liquid crystals before him and have more claim to the title (Otto Lehmann is often referred to as the father of liquid crystals and George Gray and his team discovered the actual compounds necessary to make LCDs).

Isn't it funny how American history books differ from everybody else's? I recently read a history of the internet which gave Tim Berners-Lee one paragraph in 300 pages. I've seen computer books which refer to Alan Turing as an American(!), I've seen textbooks which state that John Logie Baird didn't invent the television and I recently heard that America counts as inventor of the motor car because they invented mass production, even though the first motor car was built by a Frenchman.

Stop trying to claim credit for everything you wish you'd invented but didn't.

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Paris Hilton

Hands across the water

This story - of a clever invention absolutely stuffed-up by the people who invented it, and of a clever inventor tossed aside by circumstance - is the kind of thing I would expect from Britain rather than the US. I can think of several similar British stories off the top of my head. I'm not sure whether it's nice to know that this kind of thing is transatlantic, or not. Mind you, I'm sure there are similar tales from Japan, it's just that we rarely hear about them.

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Unhappy

there's a parallel story in the UK

RSRE was a defence lab which is now (IIRC) part of Quinetiq. They developed an advanced (for the time) LCD with a 270deg twist. However the civil servants who handling the licensing failed to reach agreement with the Japanese, who seem to have been the only serious interest.

I think they developed the core LCD tech on their own after that.

I suspect no matter where the chips for all those calculators, watches and games came from in the mid 70s onward the displays were virtually all Japanese.

Sarnover labs was sold off by RCA years ago. What does RCA make now?

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In the vein of Tommy Flowers

Unassuming engineer creates world-changing technology. Must be a book there somewhere.

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@Aldous

"bull we are bought up and taught science where we aren't allowed to touxch anything that may burn/spark/cause a slight emotional injury"

That's a test. The kids that listen weren't meant to be scientists.

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LCDs embedded in gardening tools ?

I guess it could be useful as an indicator of how many calories you burned whilst digging.

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#1 killer of productivity

Office politics strikes again. Should be a capital offence IMO. More power to him that he realized and bugged out while he could.

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Anonymous Coward

By 1975, he was running DARPA

Does this mean we should be even more afraid of what he did after inventing the lcd? Skynet anyone?

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Office politics

Sure enough his career carried on fine after he'd left RCA.

From my impressions of working in American-run companies, all the managers are really interesting in is their own careers. Making themselves look good and avoiding any risk of being associated with failure are the orders of the day.

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Anonymous Coward

US office politics

Having worked for a NASDAQ-listed US high-tech company, I'm not surprised about politics getting in the way of profit. It was a big shock when I realised our CEO was only interested in looking after No. 1 and that though I was just a humble R&D guy I was far more of a company man than he was.

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Prof. George Gray

@Anonymous Coward

I was fortunate enough to have the developer of stable room temperature liquid crystals as my supervisor at Hull Uni in the late 70s.

It was his work that enabled all the practical applications we see today to function at sensible pressures and temperatures.

An unassuming, down to earth Scot with a honed sense of humour and enough courage to accept a couple of bottles of my home brew beer. Glad it didn't kill him. Others were not so fortunate.

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Unhappy

Does the Pope shit in the woods?

This is not a uniquely US problem. It's about the difference between having vision and having a Vision Statement. This sort of conservative risk-averse thinking is so ubiquitous in corporate heirarchies I'm surprised it's even commented upon these days. The number of times I've seen exciting and imaginative work canned because some monkey-brained manager couldn't see past the next bonus review doesn't bear thinking about.

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Stop

maybe in the usa

he definitely wouldn't have done anything with it unless he discovered how to make it temperature resilient. That was done in Hull England!

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Anonymous Coward

@Maybe in the USA

John Logie Baird did invent a television system but modern tube televisions are based on the Philo Farnsworth television which was developed independantly.

I for one object to Baird being called the inventor of television

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Unhappy

How it goes

This sort of corporate malaise is all too common, in fact it's a rare company that doesn't go this way.

It's worth remembering that the Rank in the (former) Rank Xerox is the same as the one in the (former) Rank Hovis McDougall. The baking came first. Someone invented and patented the Xerox copier process, and was trying to commercialize it. Rank (the baker) was the first company willing to invest in it, after many rejections from more obvious sources of funding. The rest is history.

Xerox went on to become the source of many of the key inventions in today's computer industry. Read up about Xerox PARC. But this company was also past its prime and largely failed to capitalize on any of its inventions.

Digital Equipment is another once-great company that lost its passion for innovation, filled up with people playing politics, and went into terminal decline.

All rather sad. Probably an inevitable part of human nature.

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Anonymous Coward

@Maybe in the USA

Yes, Mr Pot. It's an established "fact" in Britain that it invented radar. I'm also regularly informed by the British media that Berners-Lee invented the Internet. On one occasion on Radio 4, I was informed that Berners-Lee invented e-mail as part of his invention of the 'net. He was one busy man!

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Boffin

@AC: Logie Baird

"I for one object to Baird being called the inventor of television"

Baird was the first guy ever to get all the separate elements working together so that you could break down a picture at the 'camera', and reconstruct it on the 'TV screen', using electrical or radio transmission of the signals in between. How that doesn't qualify as 'inventing television' is a mystery to me.

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Anonymous Coward

@Daffy The Duck

Actually, Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web and the first web browser. I don't recall saying anywhere that he invented the internet. We all know that was Al Gore.

TB-L also, with Daniel Connolly, produced the first proposal for an HTML spec (http://www.w3.org/MarkUp/draft-ietf-iiir-html-01.txt).

We Brits know Watson-Watt didn't invent the principle of radar. He did however invent an aircraft detection system using it, without which WW2 would have turned out very differently. What's your point?

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@Toastan Buttar

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.

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Boffin

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.

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Paris Hilton

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.

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