LCD – From Modest Beginnings (AKA “A Carrot Never Looked So Good”)
The development of the modern LCD panel dates back much further than the big clunky watch you probably used to wear. In 1888 Friedrich Reinitzer was the first to discover the liquid crystalline nature of cholesterol benzoate, derived from carrots of all things. Reinitzer discovered that at 145 degrees C, the material melted, becoming cloudy. At 170 degrees C the material became clear. He presented his findings to a meeting of the Vienna Chemical Society that same year. Both Otto Lehmann and Charles Mauguin published papers expanding on the work of Reinitzer, in 1904 and 1911 respectively, but liquid crystals largely remained a scientific curiosity for the next 80 years.
The Modern Explosion
In 1962 it was Richard Williams of RCA who noticed that you could achieve some interesting electro-optical effects in liquid crystal by applying electricity to it, describing what is known as “Williams Domain” inside the liquid crystal. In 1964 George Heilmeier, also at RCA, expands upon the work of Williams and manages to turn a clear liquid milky by applying electricity. Heilmeir actually had the foresight to envision that a wall sized full color LCD display was achievable. The first actual active matrix display was T. Peter Brody in 1972. They were initially limited to small displays, like calculators, watches, and other small devices. In fact, it was Tomio Wada at Sharp who, in 1973, developed the first LCD product, a pocket calculator. In 1988 Sharp demonstrated the first active matrix full color full motion LCD panel. In 1991 Sharp’s Magohiro Aramoto introduced the first wall hanging television product, the Liquid Crystal Museum. Heilmeier’s dream had become a reality.
Several companies began investing in LCD technology in a big way. Sharp has been an industry leader since they first displayed their full color 14” in 1988. Since then other manufacturers, like Samsung, Hannstar, LG, Acer, BenQ, HP, Casio, Sony and Viewsonic (among many, many more!) have entered the fray. Sharp continues to be an industry standard, but Samsung and Sony have also made compelling claim to the title. . Despite being pivotal in the development of LCD technology, RCA was never able to capitalize on their contributions and never made or marketed a product.
LCDs are literally everywhere because they’re relatively inexpensive to make and can be used in virtually any application. The big manufacturers, like Samsung, Sharp, Hannstar and many others, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars improving the technology. Today, LCDs can range in size from a fraction of an inch all the way up to the current monster, Sharp’s 108” display. The basic active matrix design hasn’t changed much since 1972. Like cars and computers, the design has become more refined, more responsive, and better at displaying accurate color.
What began as a curious physical effect in a material derived from a carrot took flight in a hopeful dream of a pioneer. Today’s LCD are faster than ever before and capable of reproducing clear, vibrant, life like pictures, improving on everything that’s gone before.. There are still limitations to the technology, but the next generation of displays will feature incredibly high resolutions and better image quality. Baby, you’ve come a long way.