They’re everywhere. Once the province of expensive watches, the liquid crystal display now adorns everything from cheap calculators to massive televisions. They’re in color and black, and they fill our cars, our cameras, our phones, and even our kitchen appliances. Yet the LCD is only about 50 years old.
It was George H. Heilmeier who gets credit for the LCD. Liquid crystals were first discovered in 1888 but there was no use for them. They were just a curiosity, crystals in a solution that could be made to line up if you gave them an electrical current. It took almost 75 years for anyone to really have any idea that they could be used for display technology.
The basic idea of an LCD is that if you take a big goopy mix of liquid crystals and electrify them, the crystals affected by electricity all line up. In this way, and if you do it right, they can go from being transparent to being opaque, and if you do this using tiny little wires in a grid, you can build a display that you can control by computer.
This technology has taken the world by storm. The first LCD watches became affordable in the 1970s, and LCD computer monitors and TVs started penetrating the public consciousness in the late 1990s. Today, we use LCDs for anyplace we need a little bit of information, whether that’s the battery level on our thermometers or the ending to Game of Thrones. They come in different shapes and sizes and despite early doubts, have come to equal or surpass every other display technology out there.
So, take a moment to think about Dr. Heilmeier while you’re reading this article, because there’s an overwhelming likelihood you’re reading it using one of his inventions.