George Heilmeier made flat-screen TVs possible with invention of LCD

RCA engineer developed the liquid crystal technology that led to today's slim devices

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 5:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 6:41pm

George Heilmeier 

George Heilmeier, one of the principal creators of the liquid crystal display (LCD) technology that made it possible to hang television sets on walls and carry computers in coat pockets, died April 21 at a hospital in Plano, Texas, near Dallas. He was 77.

He died after a stroke, according to his daughter, Beth Jarvie.

Heilmeier, the son of a janitor, was the first member of his family to finish high school. He went on to achieve widespread recognition for helping to pave the way towards the slender and graceful, yet prodigiously powerful, electronic devices that characterise modern life.

In 2006 he won Japan's Kyoto Prize for achievements benefiting humanity; two years ago, he shared the Draper Prize, awarded by the National Academy of Engineering. Both are regarded as equivalents of the Nobel Prize.

The "liquid crystal" description of the materials that Heilmeier worked with appeared at first to be an oxymoron. Crystals carry an image of rigidity and regularity - almost exactly the opposite of liquids.

But liquid crystals can be made, and some have a particularly valuable property: they can scatter light when subjected to an electrical field. By this property, they lend themselves to incorporation in devices that translate invisible electrical signals into visible light.

Others had studied the electro-optical properties of liquid crystals, said Benjamin Gross, a historian of science whose doctoral thesis dealt with the development of LCD technology, and had speculated on how the crystals could be used in a display.

But, Gross said: "George Heilmeier was the first person to transform that idea into a practical technology."

Heilmeier organised a research group at RCA to develop clocks and similar devices using the new technology. The crystal property on which his work was based was known as dynamic scattering, and the first LCD watches and calculators made use of that property.

Later, a new form of liquid crystal display, known as the twisted nematic display, largely replaced the dynamic scattering equipment. But in a very real sense, Gross said, Heilmeier's displays marked the beginning of the modern LCD industry.

Today's slim, flat screens formed part of the early wishes of David Sarnoff, the communications pioneer who built RCA, the company where much of Heilmeier's work was done. It was Sarnoff who in the early 1950s, when TV sets were chunky items that housed massive cathode ray tubes, proposed sets that could hang on a wall.

In addition to his daughter, Beth Jarvie, Heilmeier is survived by his wife of 52 years, the former Janet Faunce, and three grandchildren.