Liquid Crystal Display Invented 40 Years Ago
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Back in the 60s families would gather in their living rooms around those massive TV sets. There were three networks and TV was called the tube because the screen was lit by a huge cathode ray tube. Then in 1968 a sleek new invention was revealed - we now see it every day on our cell phones, our iPods, even those impossibly skinny TVs bolted to living room walls.
It's the LCD screen. Forty years ago it was truly Science out of the Box.
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SEABROOK: The guy behind the LCD screen, meet George Heilmeier. Mr. Heilmeier, happy anniversary.
Mr. GEORGE HEILMEIER (Creator, LCD Screen): Well, thank you very much, Andrea.
SEABROOK: Tell me about the eureka moment. Do you remember the first time you saw it work?
Mr. HEILMEIER: Oh sure. You don't forget things like that.
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Mr. HEILMEIER: The first time really got us excited. It was an alphanumeric display and we could display numbers from one to ten and then we essentially demonstrated that we obviously could do letters as well as numbers. And we looked at the contrast and the quality of the imagery and the like and we felt that we had something there.
SEABROOK: And what was so great about having an LCD screen?
Mr. HEILMEIER: Well, it was flat, it was simply two pieces of glass with some liquid crystal material between them. And we demonstrated that with relatively low voltages - and by relatively low I mean something in the ten-volt range -we could essentially change the imagery on the display or control the imagery on the display.
And that was quite an event because cathode ray tubes required thousands of volts.
SEABROOK: How does the LCD work as opposed to a cathode ray tube?
Mr. HEILMEIER: Well, liquid crystals, that name confuses people. In many respects they're like a liquid, that is they fill the shape of the container that they're in but on the other hand unlike other liquids, the molecules tend to align. And if you apply a voltage to them they align almost perfectly. And in that alignment process you can see visible effects of the changes and those changes that were driven by low voltages were essentially the basis upon which a display was made possible.
SEABROOK: And it doesn't need a cabinet the size of a dresser drawers.
Mr. HEILMEIER: No, it really doesn't. And it doesn't need high voltage and a lot of power. So, it really is a very, very flexible technology and you can see that by the diversity of applications that have emerged over the years.
SEABROOK: Um-hum. Did you ever imagine back then, George Heilmeier, that your invention, the LCD screen, would just be everywhere a few decades later?
Mr. HEILMEIER: Well, I guess we had those dreams but…
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Mr. HEILMEIER: …they were, from our standpoint, a decade or more away, unfortunately. The addressing circuitry, the integrated circuits that we needed to essentially display video information, took another decade before they had reached the level of sophistication that was needed.
But back in the 60s we understood pretty well that the real end game would be television.
SEABROOK: George Heilmeier led the team of scientists that introduced the liquid crystal display in May of 1968. And when you check your watch, your iPod or watch TV tonight, think of him. Thanks for joining us, sir.
Mr. HEILMEIER: Thank you very much, Andrea.
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