The Visualist Blog

RCA and the invention of LCD technology

The path from scientific innovation to truly new products and especially the creation of new markets can be very long.  Although Mersive was founded in 2006, our work is based on technology that I’ve been involved with since 1997.  Recently I had a dinner conversation with a great group of thinkers who asked me to compare Mersive’s historical path to other display technologies or companies that have had an impact. They were looking for patterns of innovation beyond displays. RCA and its early development of LCD technology immediately came to mind.

In 1964 RCA vice president, James Hillier, envisioned mobile, flat-screen televisions.  He was lucky enough to have been shown a demonstration inside RCA labs of electrically triggered opalescence that was possible with a class of materials called liquid crystals. He predicted that these prototypes could become mobile devices, televisions and portable displays. “You could take such a set to the beach,” Hillier joked, “and, in between bikini watching, see the Mets on TV figure out a new way to lose a ball game.”  Pretty insightful, and you’d think given that strength of vision, that RCA would have enjoyed significant commercial success bringing the technology to market.

RCA and the invention of LCD technology
Chemists at RCA had known about the strangely behaving class of materials for years, and they played center stage on a variety of projects.   Liquid crystals flow like a liquid but have a higher degree of molecular organization than most liquids. Exposing them to an electrical field can induce the material to organize itself in a way that modifies its optical properties.  A few volts can change its polarization, or heating a liquid crystal can change it from transparent to visibly light to partially opaque.  Early projects involving these materials ranged from airplane windows that would turn opaque to block light from a nuclear blast, to modulation of laser light for point-to-point communications.

RCA and the invention of LCD technology

In 1964 George Heilmeier, a researcher at RCA who had come across the materials in his work related to optics, recognized the value of the materials to modulating displays.  Work began on a class of liquid crystals known as twisted nematics, which are composed of long molecules that can run in parallel to one another. That structure allows the molecules to slide past one another and out of alignment in their base state, but then they realign when subjected to an electric field.  When the molecules are out of alignment, they “twist” polarization of light that is incident on the material (you can actually see this effect as light strikes opalescent gem stones.)

RCA and the invention of LCD technologySo what does this have to do with displays?  Imagine shining light into this material that is trapped between two pieces of polarizing glass.  If the nematics liquid crystal is in a twisted state, it will take the incoming polarized light that makes it through the first filter and twist it 90 degrees.  A second polarizing filter can then be used to selectively pass light through to a viewer only when it is in this twisted state.  Light can be blocked by applying a small voltage across the polarizing glass plates that trap the liquid crystal and causing molecules to quickly re-align into a field of parallel rods that no longer twists polarization.  Because the incoming light has a polarization phase that no longer has been twisted, it cannot pass through the second filter and the viewer no longer sees light from the plate.

Heilmeier took this concept a step further by showing that by dissolving a colored dye into a liquid crystal solvent, colored light can be turned on and off simply by applying a voltage to the “cell” that contained the material.  This concept became the basic building block for the liquid crystal display (LCD) where each of these cells is skin to the modern day LCD pixel.

Demonstrations of this ability were made available to the RCA team in 1964, and it led to Hillier quite accurately predicting the future regarding mobile, thin displays.   The potential impact of a LCD went beyond a new approach to displaying information. They could be directly driven by transistors and no other directly digital display technology existed at that time.  By combining advances in computing, digital circuits and manufacturing, it was clear that a new class of consumer electronics with an integrated digital display was now on the horizon.  As an aside, I’ve mentioned this story to a few of our own engineers who have, what I think, is the same level of excitement in creating a “new class of displays” at Mersive that are focused on collaboration and the conference room.

At this point, you may realize there is an elephant in the room.  The first commercial LCD television wasn’t even developed by RCA, and it certainly wasn’t available in the 1960s.  In fact, Sharp introduced the first large consumer LCD display in 1988. So what happened?  The missed opportunity for RCA is a long story and involves a combination of struggles that many startups face.

  • Hard engineering problems can drain the commitment of an organization if they take longer to solve than expected. In RCA’s case, the team working on the core technology had been cut down to eight people for many years as other priorities got in the way.
  • Internal politics also played a role, and in the case of RCA, the R&D team was given a more formal management structure to help them make progress.  Unfortunately the new manager was so disliked by other managers at RCA that other groups, including the integrated circuits teams, were simply told not to talk to the liquid crystal team.  Unbelievable.
  • Finally, loss of management focus and support killed the momentum of the project.  Robert Sarnoff, who had succeeded his well-known father as CEO, focused the company on computing initiates and didn’t see the potential of the technology as clearly as his predecessor.

All of these factors led to the worst effect of all: loss of morale in the very people who originally had the vision. Critical team members began leaving RCA to work at display startups like Optel. When asked in 1970 about how his management and business teams at RCA viewed LCDs, Heilmeier is quoted as saying “more as a threat than an opportunity.”  Shortly after that he left for work in the government.

It is an interesting tale, and when I described that to my group of colleagues at dinner, they seemed a bit perplexed that I had chosen such a disastrous tale of failure.  But the task was to compare our historical trajectory with that of other display technologies and lessons learned.  So how do we compare more than a decade’s worth of scientific innovation to inventing a new technology that ultimately failed at RCA?  “It’s simple.” I said, “We’re not going to do that.”

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