back to article The tech you're reading these words on – you have two Dundee uni boffins to thank for that

Every time you use a smartphone, glance at your smart watch, fire up a computer, watch TV or endure a PowerPoint presentation, you experience a little bit of Dundee. The flat-panel technology we use in modern devices wasn't invented by megacorps in Japan or Silicon Valley but by a pair of academics in Scotland's fourth-largest …

  1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge
    Pint

    This--------------------->

    1. Shadow Systems Silver badge

      I'll raise my tankard in toast.

      Even though I'm blind & no longer use one, I still remember fondly my old flat screen monitor. I'll doff my cap, lift my tankard, & buy the next round to help commemorate. Good job!

      1. Paul Crawford Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: I'll raise my tankard in toast.

        And from me =>

        While I don't remember Spear, I do remember LeComber as a genuinely nice guy as well as being a bright as they come. We were all shocked when he died so young (younger than myself now) and I even made it to his funeral service. RIP.

  2. mix
    Happy

    Wonderful.

    Anyone know the reason why their patent failed?

    An excellent story, bravo.

    1. Chris Tierney

      Re: Wonderful.

      In summary, the publication of their paper prior to the application made it easy for the competition to be first out the gate with the application.

      I think this court case may shed some light on it.

      https://www.casemine.com/judgement/us/5914b08dadd7b04934753742

      1. Alien8n Silver badge

        Re: Wonderful.

        Which goes to show where the patent process is broken. Unfortunately they created the physics behind the technology but the patent is for the process of creating the technology. As they had no process they had nothing to patent and by the time they worked out the process they'd given the Japanese enough time to work out and patent the process before they could.

        1. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

          Re: Wonderful.

          "As they had no process they had nothing to patent and by the time they worked out the process they'd given the Japanese enough time to work out and patent the process before they could."

          That's because the Japanese make stuff.

          The sad other side to this story is the fact that we don't.

  3. wolfetone Silver badge
    Pint

    Never knew the story about TFT, and I'm all the better now for knowing about the story. Thank you Mr.Dabbs for the write up.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Waiting for the flood of "I'm using a CRT." comments.

    1. Joe Harrison

      Actually I'm using a teletypewriter but they have promised me a CRT if I get an A in my performance review.

      1. Aladdin Sane Silver badge

        Isn't that review graded 1-5?

      2. Jan 0

        Joe, if you really make the grade, you could ask for a Tektronix 4010, perhaps?

        That’ll save yards of paper every time the screen is redrawn. (Yes I have played Star Trek on a teletypewriter:)

      3. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Keep the Teletype.

        It's unaffected by EMP* :-)

        * so sorry about our President...

    2. tomban
      Trollface

      I'm using OLED

      1. Jamie Jones Silver badge

        I'm using DLP :-)

    3. Jeffrey Nonken Silver badge

      I have a CRT.

      ...It's sitting on a shelf gathering dust, but it was still working last time I tested it.

  5. Quentin North

    TFT patent?

    Anyone know why the team couldn't patent TFT?

    1. Mage Silver badge

      Re: TFT patent?

      They were not a large USA Corporation. Or Maybe German, Finnish or Asian.

      Ironic that RCA was gone by 1976. The dregs bought by French Thomson. Now name may be owned by Nokia.

      UK from 1850s to 1970s was brilliant at innovation. More rarely at comercialising. By 1960s most of the original UK Electronics had either been morphed to MOD contracts or run by bean counters with no vision. Acorn's ARM was really the only one that escaped the curse and only by giving up making, but licensing.

      Thorn went downhill after Jules Thorn retired (and died not long after, he had a long reign).

      Mullard was Philips by 1928. EMI (HMV etc) lost their way in 1970s. Ferranti, Plessey, GEC, Inmos, ICL, Ever Ready, Burndept, Vidor, Rank Radio (Bush / Murphy). Sinclair was a serial disaster, certainly a show man. Alan Sugar /Amstrad. The other UK companies in Telecoms & Computers.

      Most Edison & RCA patents were bought in, intimidation, ignoring prior art, simply invalid etc. To and extent Bell Labs/AT&T (The UNIX land grab of work done by the Universities) Though all did innovate too.

      The USPTO especially needs reformed.

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: RCA

        RCA 1986, not 1976, sorry!

        1. Pangasinan Philippines

          Re: RCA

          RCA name is on the digital terrestrial TV boxes here in Philippines.

          Don't know who owns it though.

          Probably a similar setup that Polaroid went through where the name was still a trusted brand no matter who was making the boxes.

    2. phy445

      Re: TFT patent?

      Prior art. There were plenty of TFT papers published in the sixties.

      The real breakthrough with this work was getting the amorphous silicon to perform well enough. The older TFT designs used materials like Cadmium Selenide as the semiconductor.

  6. Inspector71
    Boffin

    Remembering...

    I am pretty sure that I went to physics lectures by Walter Spear in the either the Harris Building or the Ewing building while I was doing my Electronics degree in the early 80s.

  7. Jan 0

    Superb article!

    Alistair, this is by far the best non-humorous article of yours that I’ve read. It is a shame that the monument is posthumous, but at least it gives hope to other unsung heroes and will be greatly appreciated by their families. I really appreciated the factual and historical content.

    Thanks too for, as usual, producing an article that isn’t full of typos, schoolboy errors and grammatical mistakes. All in all a wonderful (late) breakfast read.

    1. Mage Silver badge

      Re: Superb article!

      Alistair used to work for actual printed magazines. The ones with writing between the ads rather than the few left with pictures of supposedly famous people.

  8. ForthIsNotDead
    Pint

    Thank you dear author...

    ...for this most excellent article.

    And very best wishes to LeCombers widow and family. At long last his talent and skill has been recognised. Have pride in his memory.

    God bless.

  9. defiler Silver badge
    Joke

    Worrying...

    Every time you use a smartphone, [...], you experience a little bit of Dundee.

    You get the wheels nicked off your car? Thank god it wasn't invented in East Kilbryde...

    1. defiler Silver badge

      Re: Worrying...

      Hahaha - flushed out the 4 Dundonians :D

      Don't worry, chaps - I don't really have anything against Dundee. On the other hand, I did accidentally end up in East Kilbryde once at night. Had to think hard before stopping at red lights...

  10. FIA

    Every time you use [something vaguely useful or life saving]

    [it was probably invented by someone from Scotland]

    FTFY.

    (Seriously, it's amazing quite how prolific the Scottish are at coming up with cool stuff).

    TV, marmalade, the coma scale, the tractor beam, Grand Theft Auto, the list goes on...

    1. Spanners Silver badge
      Happy

      @FIA

      We did not invent the Bristol scale.This is not a measurement of bristols. I think an IT term might be "dump analysis".

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "[it was probably invented by someone from Scotland]"

      Except that neither or the inventors in this case were themselves Scottish, and nor did Alistair actually claim that in the original wording.

      The discovery was made at the University of Dundee, but Walter Spear was German, and Peter LeComber was English. They first met and worked together in Leicester and LeComber followed Spear to Dundee in the late 1960s.

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: "Except that neither or the inventors in this case were themselves Scottish"

        Don't worry ; in a hundred years, they will be.

    3. Mage Silver badge

      TV

      Baird didn't invent TV. He was an entrepreneur promoting an updated mechanical system proposed by Nipkow. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Gottlieb_Nipkow Electronic TV was proposed in 1906 and working versions developed by others, though Baird's nearly instant film to electronic transmission was used in satellites to have high resolution and low data rate. From the beginning the problem was how to make the camera target. The CRT already existed and was the obvious thing to use as part of a camera, not just the display.

      Farnsworth didn't invent TV either. His system was technological dead end. The big problem was viable electronic camera. EMI/RCA collaboration based on Vladimir Kosma Zworykin's work started at Westinghouse in 1929.

      http://www.earlytelevision.org/rca_story_brewster.html

      1. Alistair Dabbs

        Re: TV

        Funny you should mention Baird but I wrote about him with respect to another IEEE Milestone bronze plaque last year: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/01/30/john_logie_baird_bronze_plaque/

    4. Tom 38 Silver badge

      (Seriously, it's amazing quite how prolific the Scottish are at coming up with cool stuff).

      By this logic, John Logie Baird is English, because he was working in Hastings at the time?

      1. Jamie Jones Silver badge

        Don't forget the deep fried mars bar!

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Every time you use [something vaguely useful or life saving]

      [it was probably invented by someone from Scotland]

      FTFY. (Seriously, it's amazing quite how prolific the Scottish are at coming up with cool stuff). TV, marmalade, the coma scale, the tractor beam, Grand Theft Auto, the list goes on...

      Another notable contribution comes from the Stevenson family, famed builders of lighthouses, bridges, harbours, dredgers of estuary channels, they really pushed the science of civil engineering along. There's even Stevenson inspired lighthouses in Japan, such as this still functioning one. Even the lighthouse keeper's house looks like it belongs in Scotland.

      One of the saddest episodes was the failure of the Scottish ship yards to adopt block construction, at a time when they were still profitable post WW2, preferring to stick with the old fashioned way. Now the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, etc dominate ship building using block construction, and the Clyde is a shadow of its former self. It's a most painful lesson; Develop, or Die.

    6. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Coat

      "(Seriously, it's amazing quite how prolific the Scottish are at coming up with cool stuff)."

      ...and yet they never mention Tony Blair as a "famous son"...

  11. Korev Silver badge
    Boffin

    Another British invention making money for elsewhere

    It's such a shame that Britain is so good at inventing things and terrible at making money from them. See also Monoclonal antibodies, Graphene, television, Next Generation Sequencing, digital programmable computer etc.

    1. Mike Richards

      Re: Another British invention making money for elsewhere

      Public key encryption.

      Another British invention (right down to discovering the algorithm that was later rediscovered as RSA). It is only officially commemorated by an IEEE plaque at GCHQ to James Ellis, Clifford Cocks and Malcolm Williamson. Ellis died before the plaque was unveiled, and indeed before the government agreed their contribution could be made public.

      1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

        Re: Another British invention making money for elsewhere

        so it should be called ECW encryption?

  12. StuntMisanthrope Bronze badge

    Knighthoods all round!

    Problem was and still is, up north and not within a stones throw of the lazy bastards, humble, modest, brilliant, not on TV (the irony) or greedy. #bravo #enquiringminds

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  13. StuntMisanthrope Bronze badge

    Knighthoods all round!

    Problem was and still is, up north and not within a stones throw of the lazy bastards (mainstream media), humble, modest, brilliant, not on TV (the irony) or greedy. #bravo #enquiringminds

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Re: Knighthoods all round!

      whut?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Knighthoods all round!

        I posted almost exactly the same response, then deleted it after realising it (broadly) made sense- they're saying it took place too far away from the mainstream media (based in the up-its-own-arse centre of the universe, AKA London) and that the people involved weren't self-promoting or greedy enough.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Spear

    > Walter Spear was born in Frankfurt in 1921 but his father, being Jewish, moved the family to London in the nick of time in 1938

    Damn immigrants, coming over here, inventing world-changing technologies, become a Fellow of the Royal Society, blah blah

    [Warning: post may contain irony.]

    1. Alan J. Wylie

      Re: Spear

      Otto Frisch too, who founded Laser-Scan, which worked with RSRE on liquid crystal displays (see my earlier post).

  15. Alan J. Wylie

    RSRE and Laser-Scan

    RSRE (as it had become by the early 80's) and Laser-Scan in Cambridge worked on an alternative to individually driven LCD pixels, by drawing vector graphics using an infra-red laser to switch the phase of the LCD.

    Reference to 1984 paper: Laser-Addressed Liquid Crystal Displays

    I can still remember the goggles, locked doors and notice: "Do not stare into laser beam with remaining eye".

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: RSRE and Laser-Scan

      "Do not stare into laser beam with remaining eye".

      brilliant!

  16. Dr. G. Freeman

    All the cool stuff happened before I got to Dundee Uni ;-(

    (BSc 1999-2005)

  17. JDX Gold badge

    I was going to say "how do you know I'm reading this on TFT?"

    Since I could be on an old CRT... until I remembered you probably CAN tell exactly what I'm reading it on.

    1. Mage Silver badge

      Re: I was going to say "how do you know I'm reading this on TFT?"

      Definitely window size of browser. Not sure if total screen resolution is reported, but the technology of screen is not at all reported by the browser. They didn't envisage eInk (no animation and really you want to refresh entire page, not part) or mechanical pins for touch/blind(VERY slow) when deciding what browsers report. Even alt text is often useless.

      A few folks using OLED (smaller screens but TFT too). Hardly ANYONE actual real LEDs (OLED are not proper LEDs), some CRTs still. I had an orange plasma transportable "laptop" once. The tech of choice for robust. Colour Plasma never really caught on for PCs/Laptops. Not many people using DLP (insane tech) projectors for web.

      Most are using colour LCD TFT. OLED also uses TFT for the same reasons!

      1. Jamie Jones Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: I was going to say "how do you know I'm reading this on TFT?"

        I'm sitting on my sofa, reading this on my wall, via a DLP projector. It runs at 1920x1280 so stick that to your TFT resolution assumptions! :-)

  18. Jamie Jones Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Where's the thumbs up?

    Brilliant article - it's times like these I wish we had the option to thumbs-up an article.... I'm sure you used to have such a facility, back in the day....

    1. Alistair Dabbs

      Re: Where's the thumbs up?

      These days, a share on social media is good.

      1. Jamie Jones Silver badge

        Re: Where's the thumbs up?

        Ahhh, I would if I did, but I don't.

  19. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Great Stuff

    Excellent article. Very informative. Told me a lot I didn't know anything about.

  20. Kev99

    Fascinating. And all these years the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University held the patents on LCDs. I wonder how the Scots got around them?

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      This invention was for TFT - ie practical high resolution displays - not for the LCD mechanism.

      Incidentally LCDs were invented in Hull (possibly the only place more glamorous than Dundee) and at RSRE

  21. Pangasinan Philippines

    So where were CRTs heading?

    Back in '75 or '76 there was a commercial exhibition in Hong Kong showcasing the developments in CRT technology.

    The Japanese companies were showing small (approx 5 inch) CRTs without the shadowmask, but instead had extra phosphor index stripes that registered the beam as it passed over.

    The feedback pulses from the index stripes controlled an RGB switch so that the beam was correct for each of the three colours generated.

    They were touted as the future for projection TVs with the extra brightness and reduced heat generated.

    So without LCD we could still be using CRTs.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Rate this article: 10 out of 10.

    "With seven bar patterns per number, you only need 28 connections; add a few other things on the watch display and you still only come to around 50. "

    Honourable mention surely needed here for charlieplexing, which allows creative use of circuit design to massively reduce the number of pins needed to control a display e.g. 10 pins for a 90-element display.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlieplexing

    Other than that: which adverts do I have to click on to most effectively help fund more articles like this, and the Geek's Guide?

    Sorry, 'social media likes' are not now (and have never been, and never will be) an option for some people.

  23. Potemkine! Silver badge

    Two remarks:

    - Good ideas are built on other good ideas - they rarely come from nihil.

    - European countries are not good at exploiting industrially and commercially their ideas. They've got plenty of ideas but others make money with them.

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