Four Win Engineering's Draper Prize For Development of LCDs in The Philadelphia Inquirer

George H. Heilmeier, formerly of Philadelphia, led a group of engineers who built the first liquid crystal display prototypes in the 1960s at RCA.

January 10, 2012 - Philadelphia, PA

by Tom Avril

You almost certainly have used them today, possibly even now. Without them, you might find modern life impossible. They are liquid crystal displays, and they are in billions of smartphones, flat-panel computer and TV screens, wristwatches, and calculators.

But can you recognize the names George H. Heilmeier, Wolfgang Helfrich, Martin Schadt, and T. Peter Brody?

After this month, the National Academy of Engineering hopes you might. Last week, the academy awarded its annual Draper Prize to the four men for their seminal role in what is now a multibillion-dollar industry that got its start in RCA's old David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton.

Heilmeier, a native of Philadelphia's Mayfair section who was the first in his family to attend college, led a group that built the first prototypes in the 1960s.

Yet these display screens, commonly abbreviated as LCDs, did not really take off until years later in the hands of other manufacturers, especially in Japan. Flat TV screens using this technology had to await the development of accompanying circuitry and did not become commonplace until the last decade.

Heilmeier left RCA in 1970, disappointed that the company did not commit more resources to LCDs. But he went on to successful careers in government and the private sector. In the former case, as head of the Pentagon's research arm, he oversaw development of the forerunner of the Stealth fighter...

At RCA, others also were involved in the early discovery of LCDs, but Heilmeier was the driving force, said historian Ben Gross, who wrote his dissertation at Princeton on the history of LCDs.

"He ensured that there was sufficient funding and manpower," said Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. "And he served as the leader of an interdisciplinary team of chemists, physicists, and electrical engineers."

When the early work on LCDs was generating buzz within RCA, Heilmeier was summoned to the office of senior engineer Vladimir Zworykin, a key figure in the early development of cathode-ray technology.

Asked how he came up with the new technology, he said he had just "stumbled on it," Heilmeier recalled.

"Stumbled, yes," the elder engineer responded. "But to stumble, you have to be moving."

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