by Jin S. Kim
George Harry Heilmeier was born May 22, 1936 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received his B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to receive his M.S.E., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in solid-state electronics from Princeton University. Heilmeier joined RCA Laboratories’ David Sarnoff Research Center in 1958 and worked on many projects including electro-optic effects in molecular and liquid crystals.
In 1962, Richard Williams found liquid crystals to have an electro-optical effect when a voltage was applied to a thin layer of liquid crystal material. This effect is called “Williams domains” and effect that is based on an electro-hydrodynamic instability forming in the liquid crystal material. Two years later in 1964, Heilmeier discovered new electro-optic effects in liquid crystals based on the dynamic scattering mode (DSM) that led to the world’s first working liquid crystal-based display. The DSM LCD worked by applying an electrical charge that rearranges the liquid crystals which then scattered light. Heilmeier was presented with the prestigious IEEE David Sarnoff Award in 1976 (MIT incorrectly stated the year as 1968) for his exceptional contribution to electronics. (Source: Wikipedia, MIT)
The picture above shows George Heilmeier with the first dynamic scattering method-based liquid crystal display.
In 1966, Heilmeier and Richard Williams published an article titled “Possible Ferroelectric Effects in Liquid Crystals and Related Liquids” in the Journal of Chemical Physics, 44:638. Heilmeier’s lab group, which included Nunzio Luce, Louis Zanoni, Joel Goldmacher, Joseph Castellano and Lucian Barton, began investigating the use of LCDs for TV applications but soon realized it would take considerable time and refocused their research on digital time displays for clocks and watches.
The very first liquid crystal display for commercial applications was developed in 1970. Luce, Zanoni, George Graham, and Goldmacher left RCA and joined Optel Corporation and it was there the first LCD was developed.
At about the same time in 1969, James Fergason at Kent Sate invented a different type of LCD that was based on the twisted nematic field effect. Fergason left Kent State and formed ILIXCO Corporation to commercialize his version of the LCD that consumed less power, had improved lifetimes with good contrast compared to the dynamic scattering mode LCD. In 1972 the first commercial product with a twisted nematic field effect LCD, an ILIXCO display, was introduced: Gruen’s Teletime LCD Watch. The Teletime had just one function: telling time. The little knob on the right is used to adjust the time. The original price back in 1972 was an incredibly expensive $200. You could have gotten a MG Midget Convertible for $2550 in 1972! (Image source: Pocket Calculator Show)
On May 2, 2009 (that’s tomorrow), Heilmeier along with 15 others including Andy Grove and Alfred Cho (molecular beam epitaxy used for forming LEDs, transistors, etc.) will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame founded by the US Patent and Trademark Office and the National Council of Intellectual Property Law Associations in 1973. Heilmeier will also be credited with being the inventory of the LCD. Other inductees include Thomas Edison, Dean Kamen and Steve Wozniak. Heilmeier has won many prizes and most recently was awarded the Kyoto Prize for advanced technology in 2005.
“When we built several prototype displays we thought it would be great for shower doors,” shared Heilmeier during an interview with Wired.com. That seems like a good idea! Heilmeier is currently Chairman Emeritus at Telcordia Technologies, a Piscataway, New Jersey-based company providing fixed, mobile and broadband communications software and services.