If you really like the incredible picture on your plasma display, thank Drs. Donald Bitzer, Gene Slottow and Robert Wilson. They first developed the technology at the University of Illinois in 1964. Originally envisioned as a better display for the prototype Plato automated teaching system, it , the first single cell plasma display worked on the same principals as today’s two million plus cell models.
The first plasma consisted of a single cell comprised of a piece of glass with electrodes on either side. The university design team drilled a hole 15 thousands of an inch wide into a glass slide, then sandwiched the slide between two others. On either side of their glass sandwich, they added thin film gold transistors to supply the high voltage. They glued the sealed cell to a vacuum pump, drained it of air, then pumped in the neon gas. Most interesting, beyond the blue hue, was the ability of the cell to remain lit using only a fraction of the power required to light it up in the first place. The first true display was a 4x4 matrix of blue cells. With better circuitry came more cells – in 1967 the design team successfully demonstrated a 16x16 plasma display, that by this time, was orange instead of blue. The color shift occurred because of the purer neon that was used.
These orange screens continued to improve and eventually became known as “Digivue” displays. They were used as the primary displays on the Plato teaching system, beginning in 1971.
*With the new technology came interest from the major technology players of the day. U of I collaborated with IBM to develop and commercialize the technology. As early as 1983 IBM would begin advertising their 3290 as the first mass produced plasma display for commercial use.
From there other companies like Zenith and RCA added to the mix. Zenith contributed better phosphors used to develop multi color displays. Where the technology really took off is with the addition of Dr. Larry Weber to the team. Weber was a student of Drs Bitzer and Slottow, who began consulting with American companies interested in the new display technology for commercial applications. Plasma technology began to be used in various military applications, like the Trident nuclear submarine and the Air Force’s Advanced Airborne Command Post, a 747 configured to command US forces in a nuclear confrontation. Magnavox and Photonics, the company formed to commercialize the technology, developed displays for use in USAF command centers.*
The first Japanese companies to license the technology were many of the same players that still make and market the displays – Matsushita, Fujitsu (who, ironically, don’t manufacture their own plasma displays any more), NEC, Sony and NHK. Plasma saw widespread use in Japan in cash registers and public signs.
The problem with plasma as a viable display technology was the expense in manufacturing and development costs to make it a viable alternative to CRT. IBM officially dumped their plasma display business in 1987, leaving the US Government as the only US customer willing to pay the kind of money the larger displays cost. Dr. Weber joined with three ex-IBM executives to form Plasma Co, using used manufacturing equipment purchased from IBM. Dr. Weber continued improving the displays, and is considered by many to be the “Father” of the modern plasma screen.
The Modern Plasma Screen
Plasmaco, under the direction of Dr. Weber, continued to manufacture monochrome plasma displays and continued to improve upon the original design. By 1990, LCD panels had been long introduced and had achieved full color display. Because plasma displays were strictly monochrome at the time, Plasmaco was all but wiped out. Most of their staff was laid off, creditors were knocking at the door. Dr. Weber managed to obtain a small loan to develop a color screen that was brighter and had a wider contrast ratio than competing LCD screens. He gained attention from Matushita Electronics (also known as Panasonic). Matsushita purchased Plasmaco in 1996 for $26 million. Dr. Weber continued to run the company. They began developing a 60 inch plasma display, finally unveiled in 1999.
Plasma screen have continued to improve, becoming the standard by which other flat panel displays are judged. They come in a wide variety of sizes and resolutions, all the way up to the current reigning champ, the TH-103PF9UK from Panasonic. Pioneer Electronics has refined the technology over the past several years as well, coming, largely out of nowhere, to the front of the pack in overall picture quality and performance. Their new line of Kuro HD and FD displays represent a new benchmark in performance. Inversely, many of the original major players, like Fujitsu, have seen their market share shrink to the point where they no longer manufacture their own displays.
Plasma screens, because of their wider contrast ratio and incredible color, are considered the best flat panel technology based on performance. Because of the incredibly convoluted history of the technology, many, many companies have contributed to the truly awe inspiring picture that we see today. Most of the Japanese, Korean and Chinese plasma screens on the market today use a variety of patents and technology developed by the early contributors. Trying to trace back the technology as a whole to any one manufacturer is not possible. Instead, it’s a conglomeration of some of the best technology and manufacturing processes that the best Japanese and American companies have had to offer. The bottom line? A group of uniquely talented individuals at a small university are the true Fathers of today’s plasma screens. Without their dedication and perseverance the technology may have never been.