Inventor’s Voice: Try Something Completely New

“Successes usually don’t teach you as much as failures.”

George H. Heilmeier and three other engineers received their profession’s highest honor in February 2012 for developing the liquid crystal display (LCD), used today in virtually every display device, from calculators to TV screens. The National Academy of Engineering awarded them its $500,000 Charles Stark Draper Prize for an accomplishment that “significantly benefited society” by creating “windows through which people are learning about and shaping our world.”

Heilmeier led a team at the RCA David Sarnoff Research Center that demonstrated the first operational LCD in 1964. Improvements that led to today’s practical LCD applications were subsequently made by co-prize winners Wolfgang Helfrich at RCA, Martin Schadt at Canada’s National Research Council, and the late T. Peter Brody, working at Westinghouse.

Do Something Different

Heilmeier related his discovery in his 1976 journal paper (1) that was later excerpted in an extensive history of the LCD (2). Briefly, Heilmeier was a young U. of Pennsylvania Ph.D. candidate sponsored by and working for RCA’s then-prominent Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey. Seeking a field less established than the one he was working in, “I received some excellent advice from Leon Nergaard [one of my managers] that, in retrospect, may have changed my career. Leon said, ‘Look George, you may never have another opportunity to try something completely new like this again. Use this thesis time wisely. Do something different’.”

Heilmeier took the advice to heart. Discussions with his thesis advisor, a much-admired professor “who would listen to your ideas and who made me almost part of his family” led him to the then-new field of organic semiconductors and subsequently, after finishing his thesis and publishing five papers, to experiments physical chemist Richard Williams was conducting at the Labs. Williams had discovered (and patented) an electro-optic effect in liquid crystals that he realized made the material suitable for display devices (2).

“We were young engineers and wanted to do some things that changed the ways displays were done,” Heilmeier told IMR in a recent interview. “When David Sarnoff [RCA’s visionary leader] heard what we were doing, he was very interested because he wanted to make the transition from cathode ray tubes that drew on the order of 10 kilovolts to much lower-power displays. But he wasn’t able to get anyone else around RCA interested because they felt they were world leaders in CRTs and didn’t like what we were doing.”

In 1976, Heilmeier wrote that, “After reviewing Williams’s work I reasoned, perhaps naively, that the local fields in the nematic liquid crystal were determined by the molecular order which, in turn, was a function of the applied field.” He proceeded to dope a crystal with a dye having cigar-shaped molecules that aligned parallel with the liquid crystals. Making a sandwich of the mixture and applying a dc voltage, he saw the cell change from red to transparent as the molecules were realigned. Moreover, by adding a polarizer, he was able to switch colors with less than 10 volts, far below that required for 1964 CRTs. “The wall-sized flat panel color TV was just around the corner—all you had to do was ask us.”

You Don’t Forget Things Like That

Well, not quite, but memorable enough that in May 2008, 40 years after his discovery, when National Public Radio host Andrea Seabrook asked Heilmeier about his “eureka moment” and whether he remembered the first time he saw it work, Heilmeier replied,  “Oh sure. You don’t forget things like that… the first time really got us excited.”

Heilmeier also never forgot how Vladamir Zworykin, a pioneer TV inventor and then honorary RCA VP, summoned him to his office to learn what all the excitement was about. “I explained to him how I had stumbled on the guest-host color switching effect. I’ll never forget his reflective reply: ‘Stumbled perhaps, but to stumble, one must be moving.’ We were moving. It was only the beginning.”

That was true, but Heilmeier would not be moving with it. RCA product groups and eventually top management resisted commercial development, presumably because, Heilmeier later told The Wall Street Journal, “The people who were asked to commercialize (the technology) saw it as a distraction to their main electronic focus” (3).

Discouraged, Heilmeier’s small group disbanded and in 1970, he left to accept an appointment as a White House Fellow working in the Department of Defense as a Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. From there he embarked on a successful and much honored career as Director of DARPA, VP of Technology at Texas Instruments and chairman and CEO of Bellcore. He was awarded the 1991 National Medal of Science and the 2005 Japanese Kyoto prize.

Heilmeier took several management lessons with him from his LCD invention days. He concluded his 1976 IEEE article by suggesting that perhaps his team, “suitably augmented should have been given the responsibility for developing the business opportunity as well as the technology. We were the entrepreneurs; the ones who saw opportunities, not problems; the ones who had no vested interest. Perhaps that is the lesson to be learned about bringing new ideas to market. History seems to indicate that breakthroughs are usually the result of a small group of capable people fending off a larger group of equally capable people.”

And when a BusinessWeek interviewer asked him in 2005 whether there had been many experimental flops along the way, he replied, “Yes, of course. But that’s often the way you learn. Successes usually don’t teach you as much as failures. They just confirm that what you already knew was right”(4).

References

1. G. H. Heilmeier. “Liquid crystal displays: An experiment in interdisciplinary research that worked,” IEEE Trans. Electron Devices, Vol. ED-23, July 1976.

2. Hirohisa Kawamoto. The History of Liquid-Crystal Displays, Proc, IEEE, Vol. 90, No. 4, April 2002, pp. 460-500.

3. “George Heilmeier. The liquid crystal display,” Wall Street Journal, May 24, 1993.

4. “How George Heilmeier Met the Future.” BusinessWeek, Dec.15, 2005.

Michael F. Wolff
Editor, IMR
mwolff3877@aol.com

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