A Window to the Future: LCD Manufacturing at RCA, 1968–1976

Lunchtime Lectures
Wednesday, May 20, 2020
1:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m.

This talk by Benjamin Gross, vice president for research and scholarship at the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri, is part of Science, Incorporated: Constructing the Natures of American Modernization, a series of six lectures that unpick the diverse ways in which nature—and the study of nature—became entangled with the modernization of America, from the early origins of laboratory pedagogy to mineral prospecting by satellite.

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Posed man looking at spotlight projection

RCA engineer George Heilmeier holds an early liquid-crystal display, 1968.

David Sarnoff Library Collection, courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

In 1968 a team of scientists and engineers from the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) announced the creation of a new form of electronic display that relied on an obscure set of materials known as liquid crystals. At a time when televisions used bulky cathode-ray tubes to produce an image, these researchers demonstrated how liquid crystals could electronically control the passage of light. One day, they predicted, liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) would find a home in clocks, calculators, and maybe even televisions that could hang on the wall. Half a century later RCA’s dreams have become a reality, and liquid crystals are now the basis for a multibillion-dollar global industry. Yet the company responsible for producing the first LCDs was unable to capitalize on its invention.

This talk considers how RCA scientists and engineers attempted to transform their early LCD prototypes into commercial products. Drawing on laboratory notebooks and internal reports from RCA’s corporate archive, as well as oral history interviews and artifacts from the Science History Institute’s collections, Gross explores the manufacturing and managerial challenges confronting members of RCA’s technical staff and the factors that led to the company’s ultimate withdrawal from the LCD market.
 

About the Speaker

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Benjamin Gross headshot

Benjamin Gross.

Benjamin Gross is vice president for research and scholarship at the Linda Hall Library. He was previously a research fellow at the Science History Institute and consulting curator of the Sarnoff Collection at the College of New Jersey. His first book, The TVs of Tomorrow: How RCA’s Flat-Screen Dreams Led to the First LCDs, was published in 2018 by the University of Chicago Press as part of the Science History Institute’s Synthesis series. He earned a BA in history from Yale University and a PhD in the history of science from Princeton University.
 

About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.