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Collective Voice: 50th Anniversary of LCD Research

In September 1962 The Jetsons premiered on ABC. The success of The Flintstones had inspired the network to recruit William Hanna and Joseph Barbara to produce another animated sitcom, shifting the setting from the Stone Age to the Space Age. The resulting show revolved around a typical family living in a world filled with flying cars, robotic housemaids, and flat-panel displays.

Today we take the last of these items for granted, but in 1962 the idea of a television thin enough to hang on the wall like a painting was as farfetched as a pair of antigravity boots. Little did most Americans know that even before they met George Jetson, a chemist working for the Radio Corporation of America had—50 years ago today—taken the first step toward transforming that science-fiction dream into a reality.

Digital watch with LCD screen, 1974. Gift of Joseph A Castellano, CHF Collections.

Richard Williams joined RCA’s technical staff in 1958 and began conducting experiments on electric fields’ ability to alter the wavelengths of light absorbed by crystals. Originally, he confined his attention to solid materials, but in the spring of 1962 he decided to shift his attention to a lesser-known class of substances known as liquid crystals.

As their name implies, liquid crystals are materials with physical properties halfway between solids and liquids. Although scientists had known about them for decades, they were largely considered a laboratory curiosity when Williams started his work. On April 10, 1962, he placed a liquid crystal sample between two glass plates whose inner faces were lined with a transparent conductive coating. He then applied a voltage across the sample and viewed it through a microscope, expecting to observe a shift in the sample’s absorption spectrum. What he saw was far more interesting.

Detail from photograph of Williams’ laboratory notebook illustrating the “domain structure” he observed in liquid crystals under applied fields. Hagley Museum and Library.

As he increased the voltage, Williams watched his clear samples turn opaque and form a series of rectangular regions that he called “domains.” Upon turning off the voltage, the sample returned to its original, transparent state. Williams realized that this effect could be incorporated into an electronic display and filed a patent describing several possible applications.

Detail from Williams’ patent, which described how his experimental setup could be expanded into an x-y grid capable of displaying patterns or pictures. Google Patents.

Williams continued to explore the properties of liquid crystals before taking a 1963 sabbatical in Switzerland. While he never constructed a prototype based on his ideas, his investigations laid the groundwork for a subsequent RCA project culminating in the construction of the first liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Ultimately, RCA limited its LCD production to small-scale projects like advertising displays or numeric counters, but thanks in part to Williams and his domains, liquid crystals would eventually find a home in wristwatches (like the one above, from CHF’s collections), calculators, and televisions.

Benjamin Gross is a research fellow at CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy. 

Collective Voice, dispatches from CHF's collections team (and friends), appears every second Tuesday on Periodic Tabloid.

Related:
LCD Pioneers Honored With Draper Prize [Periodic Tabloid]
Episode 12: Chemistry as Technology [Distillations]

Posted In: History | Technology

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