How RCA Lost the LCD
RCA owned the early patents but failed to commercialize the liquid crystal display
By Benjamin Gross / November 2012
In September 1967, Richard Klein and his boss, Lawrence Murray, traveled to RCA’s central research facility in Princeton, N.J. It was a familiar trip for Klein, an associate engineer at the company’s semiconductor division in nearby Somerville, whose work with light-emitting diodes kept him in close touch with solid-state researchers in Princeton. On this occasion, though, Murray assured him he was going to see something new.
Sure enough, upon arriving in Princeton, Klein and Murray were escorted to a room where electrical engineer George Heilmeier presented them with a seemingly ordinary piece of glass attached to a power supply. Then Heilmeier flipped a switch, and a familiar black-and-white image suddenly appeared on the previously transparent square. “It was a TV test pattern,” Klein recalled. “The thing pops up, and I almost fell over!”
Once Klein had recovered, Heilmeier explained that this prototype was a new form of display that relied on an obscure class of compounds called liquid crystals. Since the 19th century, chemists had known about these strange materials, which flowed like a liquid but retained the optical properties of a crystalline solid. But nobody was quite sure what to do with them.
Then, in 1962, RCA researcher Richard Williams hit upon the idea of using the crystals in some type of display, and he succeeded in getting the material to electronically modulate the passage of light. Fifty years ago this month, Williams filed for what would become RCA’s first patent on the new technology. Heilmeier and his colleagues then spent several years expanding on Williams’s findings. Now they wanted to work with their Somerville colleagues to transform these liquid crystal displays (LCDs) into commercial products.
Murray’s group in Somerville had done research on electro-optic phenomena, and so it was well suited to introduce liquid crystals to a division more comfortable with silicon. Klein was given the job of examining the technology from a manufacturing perspective, a task he embraced enthusiastically.
Just eight months after the Princeton demonstration, RCA vice president James Hillier trumpeted the LCD’s fine qualities at a high-profile press conference at the company’s New York City headquarters. Hillier predicted that the electrically triggered opalescence observed in Heilmeier’s prototypes would find its way into a wide range of products—perhaps even portable flat-screen televisions. “You could take such a set to the beach,” he joked, “and, in between bikini watching, see the Mets on TV figure out a new way to lose a ball game.”
The press latched on to Hillier’s far-out predictions, and for the remainder of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, it seemed like RCA, the company responsible for the commercialization of both black-and-white and color television, was again poised to revolutionize the field of electronic displays. Yet in 1976, less than a decade after the LCD’s unveiling, RCA sold off its liquid crystal operation, and key personnel associated with the project left the company. What began as an American innovation would mature under the auspices of firms in Europe and Asia.
Today, liquid crystals are one of the most widespread technologies of the information age and the foundation of a multibillion-dollar industry. Nevertheless, RCA’s abrupt exit from the field has largely obscured the pioneering contributions of its chemists, physicists, and electrical engineers. The events and decisions that drove the company to abandon its efforts are worth revisiting for what they reveal about the unpredictable nature of innovation—and about the tendency of large corporations to fail to capitalize on it.
Today, companies in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan dominate the LCD industry. Meanwhile, the corporation that started it all has faded from memory, purchased by General Electric in 1986. Nevertheless, RCA’s technological legacy can be seen in every LCD wristwatch, calculator, laptop, and television. All of these screens trace their origins to that firm’s laboratories and factories. As much as they are portals to the digital future, liquid crystal displays are also reminders of a past filled with possibilities for the once-dominant American electronics industry. And in their story are lessons for any technology company willing to learn them.
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