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The TVs of Tomorrow: How RCA's Flat-Screen Dreams Led to the First LCDs

The TVs of Tomorrow: How RCA's Flat-Screen Dreams Led to the First LCDs

by Benjamin Gross


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In 1968 a team of scientists and engineers from RCA announced the creation of a new form of electronic display that relied upon an obscure set of materials known as liquid crystals. At a time when televisions utilized 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 would find a home in clocks, calculators—and maybe even a television that could hang on the wall.
Half a century later, RCA’s dreams have become a reality, and liquid crystals are the basis of a multibillion-dollar global industry. Yet the company responsible for producing the first LCDs was unable to capitalize upon its invention. In The TVs of Tomorrow, Benjamin Gross explains this contradiction by examining the history of flat-panel display research at RCA from the perspective of the chemists, physicists, electrical engineers, and technicians at the company’s central laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey.
Drawing upon laboratory notebooks, internal reports, and interviews with key participants, Gross reconstructs the development of the LCD and situates it alongside other efforts to create a thin, lightweight replacement for the television picture tube. He shows how RCA researchers mobilized their technical expertise to secure support for their projects. He also highlights the challenges associated with the commercialization of liquid crystals at RCA and Optel—the RCA spin-off that ultimately manufactured the first LCD wristwatch. The TVs of Tomorrow is a detailed portrait of American innovation during the Cold War, which confirms that success in the electronics industry hinges upon input from both the laboratory and the boardroom.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226519975
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/22/2018
Series: Synthesis
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 785,938
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Benjamin Gross is the vice president for research and scholarship at the Linda Hall Library. Before moving to Kansas City, he was a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation and consulting curator of the Sarnoff Collection at the College of New Jersey.

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The Quest for Magnalux, 1951–1956

It was, by all accounts, a most unusual birthday party. The guest of honor turned sixty in February but had arranged for the celebration to be held in late September. Furthermore, while he spent most of his time in Manhattan, the event took place in the far less urban, though no less civilized, surroundings of Princeton, New Jersey. The festivities themselves were large enough to receive press coverage, yet the participants who garnered the greatest attention did not actually make a physical appearance. Still, absence did not prevent both major candidates from the previous presidential election, Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey, from sending congratulatory telegrams to David Sarnoff, the leader of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), on an occasion the executive deemed more significant than his birth in a Russian shtetl: the forty-fifth anniversary of his career in electronics.

Much had changed since 1906, when the young Jewish immigrant had taught himself Morse code as an office boy at the American branch of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company. That firm had long since vanished, purchased by General Electric (GE) as part of the government-sanctioned business maneuvers that gave birth to RCA. Sarnoff, in turn, had risen through the new company's ranks, using his growing authority to secure RCA's independence from shareholders at GE and Westinghouse. At the same time, he shifted the firm's focus from international and maritime communications to commercial broadcasting and expanded its manufacturing infrastructure through the acquisition of the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, a Westinghouse lamp factory in Indianapolis, and a GE vacuum tube plant in Harrison, a suburb of Newark. He also presided over the growth of the company's research facilities, culminating with the September 1942 opening of a laboratory in Princeton, halfway between the factories in Camden and Harrison.

Exactly nine years later, Sarnoff returned to Princeton as the chairman of RCA's board of directors, though he was more proud of the rank of brigadier general, which he had earned for coordinating military and press communications during the D-Day invasion. The company's focus had shifted from radio to television, but even during the Great Depression, Sarnoff's commitment to his technical staff remained strong. Now they wished to repay the favor. Following a celebratory lunch in the laboratory's cafeteria, RCA executive vice president Charles Jolliffe unveiled a plaque officially renaming the Princeton facility the David Sarnoff Research Center (fig. 1.1).

In response to this announcement, Sarnoff, or "the General," as he preferred to be known, delivered a speech that would become the subject of short-term press speculation and long-term reflection among RCA's staff. After thanking his colleagues, he noted that his family was in attendance and that "it is not regarded improper, in the intimacy of one's own family, to make a suggestion occasionally or to throw out a friendly hint about the kind of present you would like for your birthday or your anniversary." With that in mind, Sarnoff proceeded to describe three gifts that he wanted RCA's scientists and engineers to create in time for the 1956 celebration of his golden anniversary in radio.

Sarnoff presented these technologies as "essential inventions for which there is a basic public need" and predicted that they "would expand existing industries and create new ones." Certainly both of these descriptions could apply to one of his birthday gifts, the "Magnalux" light amplifier, which inspired researchers in Princeton to construct RCA's first flat-panel display prototypes. A combinationof technological, institutional, and economic factors prevented their inventions from entering commercial production, but these preliminary attempts forced scientists and engineers to consider the practical challenges that had to be resolved to bring the General's dream to life.

Examining their efforts also reveals how members of RCA's technical staff transformed Sarnoff's conception of light amplification. The development of Magnalux was not a simple, unidirectional process in which an executive ordered his workforce to create a specific technology within a discrete time frame. Instead, researchers capitalized on the ambiguity of Sarnoff's request to pursue several projects, each of which embodied different aspects of his vision. Over the next five years, Sarnoff and his fellow managers would alter their speeches and articles about Magnalux to reflect these engineering accomplishments. The public nature of those rhetorical shifts presents a marked contrast with RCA's later flat-panel initiatives, including the liquid crystal display (LCD) program, which were conducted in relative secrecy. As a result, the Magnalux story provides a unique opportunity to witness industrial scientists and engineers visibly shaping discussions of R & D strategy.

The General's Request

While internal accounts of Sarnoff's 1951 remarks accepted his introductory assertion that "I have not prepared a speech for this occasion" at face value, the fact that his comments extended over thirteen single-spaced pages in a subsequently printed commemorative pamphlet suggested the exact opposite. Indeed, as an immigrant, Sarnoff prided himself on his mastery of the English language, both as an external signifier of his assimilation into American society and as a means of exerting authority. "In his view, his speeches were the stuff of history," Sarnoff's biographer Kenneth Bilby observed, "and he crafted them with infinite care, often devoting hours to chiseling a single phrase."

Considering this customary attention to detail, Sarnoff's birthday gift requests come across as vague, particularly in the case of the light amplifier. Unlike the other two presents — a video recording system using magnetic tape (the "Videograph") and an air conditioner without moving parts ("Electronair") — the Magnalux had no obvious precedent. On the surface, the General's wish seemed clear enough:

One of the presents I would like to have you invent is a true amplifier of light. I have been talking about that for some years and I can get into very animated technical discussions with scientists and engineers as to whether there is such a thing or not. ... But I think we can all agree that, while we have learned how to amplify electricity, we have not yet learned how to amplify light. ... Now I should like to have you invent an electronic amplifier of light that will do for television what the amplifier of sound does for radio broadcasting.

Much as audio recorders and mechanical refrigerators were models for his other two gifts, Sarnoff argued, the antecedent for the light amplifier was the loudspeaker, which permitted audio signals to escape from operators' headsets and, in his words, "made radio broadcasting the industry that it is today." In a similar fashion, light amplification "would provide brighter pictures for television which could be projected in the home or the theatre on a screen of any desired size." The Magnalux — literally, a "big light" — would improve on the projection systems RCA previously used for closed-circuit television demonstrations. Those setups, Sarnoff pointed out, "can, of course, enlarge pictures optically, but in the process light is lost and the pictures become dimmer instead of brighter. What is needed is a true amplifier of light itself."

Beyond these generalities, Sarnoff left the technical basis of Magnalux a mystery. George Brown, an electrical engineer who later became an RCA vice president, recalled feeling that the General was drawing a false distinction between audio and video signal amplification.

Since sound in a radio set comes out of the loudspeaker with sufficient volume because the electrical signals corresponding to the sound are amplified by means of vacuum tubes, I assumed that we already had the problem under control[,] for picture signals were also amplified electronically.

In effect, Sarnoff was asking his engineers to reconsider a problem they had previously solved. But while the vacuum tube and its solid-state analogue, the transistor, could boost the strength of a video signal, neither could increase the brightness of the resultant image as the General had requested.

Given his passion for predicting future developments in communications, it is possible that Sarnoff had no specific technology in mind while drafting his talk. Yet throughout his career, he maintained close relationships with researchers, often traveling to Camden or Princeton for extended visits to discuss the latest electronic advances. Moreover, both George Brown and Elmer Engstrom, thehead of RCA Laboratories during the 1950s, asserted that Sarnoff regularly contacted them for technical advice before composing his speeches. Assuming he did so before the 1951 ceremony, his omissions may have been intended to avoid restricting the creativity of RCA scientists or accusations that his ideas were infeasible. More importantly, like any good prophet, Sarnoff recognized the wisdom of embracing a degree of ambiguity to accommodate the unexpected in light of the rapid changes underway within RCA's newly renamed research center and the American electronics industry.

A Laboratory in Transition

Sarnoff's birthday gift request came at a tumultuous moment in RCA's history. Retreating from the near-total military orientation of its research facilities during World War II, by 1951 RCA found its hopes to dominate the postwar consumer electronics market threatened by the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Sarnoff and his opposite number at CBS, William Paley, had been engaged in a struggle to establish technical standards for American television broadcasts since before Pearl Harbor. RCA's subsidiary, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) commenced regular TV service in 1939 with the intent of using the profits from monochrome sets to develop a color system. In 1940, Paley undercut these plans by announcing that CBS had devised a market-ready color television apparatus, which projected images through a rotating set of color filters. Unlike RCA's planned "compatible color" system, whose electronically generated images could still be viewed, albeit in monochrome, on existing black-and-white sets, the CBS system would render the nearly twelve million televisions sold between 1946 and 1950 obsolete.

With the future of their industry at stake, Sarnoff and Paley lobbied the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish broadcasting standards favoring each company's respective technology. The FCC postponed discussion of the matter until after the war but in 1950 authorized broadcasts using the CBS system. Sarnoff appealed the ruling, calling the FCC's actions "scientifically unsound and against the public interest," but the Supreme Court supported the commission's decision. Fortunately for RCA, the military's requisition of electronics materiel following the outbreak of hostilities in Korea prevented CBS from expanding color set production. The Korean conflict also supplied RCA with an opportunity to refine the compatible color system and confirm its superiority to Paley's "whirling disc."

Consequently, color television retained its status as the highest priority project at the David Sarnoff Research Center (DSRC), a constant objective for a company trying to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of the US electronics market (fig. 1.2). Between 1942 and 1945, the complement of technical personnel in Princeton had remained fixed, as RCA devoted itself to wartime radar and television projects. Now a growing slate of competitors and the increased importance of semiconductor technologies provided incentives to broaden its research base. Sarnoff delegated this responsibility to Elmer Engstrom, who had supervised RCA television research in the 1930s and was now vice president in charge of RCA's laboratories. Engstrom introduced a new training program that exposed incoming staff members to work in different labs before they received their first official assignment. He also worked with Douglas Ewing, a former physics professor who previously managed the development of aerial navigation systems in Camden, to oversee the DSRC's recruitment drive and organize partnerships with nearby universities such as Rutgers and Princeton.

Engstrom and Ewing's actions were the vanguard of a realignment of RCA's R & D strategy, institutionalizing the notion that fundamental research, conducted without any practical outcome in mind, would result in discoveries that might serve as the basis for new technologies. That new knowledge would then leave the laboratory for subsequent applications development at the company's operating divisions in Camden, Harrison, or elsewhere. This assumed one-way progression from basic to applied science, rooted in the writings of electrical engineer turned science policy expert Vannevar Bush, came to be known as the linear model of innovation and became the touchstone for industrial research policy at RCA — as well as firms such as American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), DuPont, and International Business Machines (IBM) — through much of the Cold War.

As early as 1945, Engstrom had worried that RCA's wartime research was nearing the limits of scientific understanding. "Technological advances have been rapid," he told his superiors, "and have now reached the point where further progress is being materially held up because of lack of knowledge of basic phenomena." Hiring more researchers, especially those inclined toward theoretical work on up-and-coming subjects such as solid-state physics, which studied the behavior of electrons within materials rather than in a vacuum, was the obvious solution to this deficiency. The company heeded Engstrom's advice. By 1951, the DSRC's annual report boasted that RCA's technical staff had more than doubled in size since the end of World War II, and its solid-state research program was "probably the broadest in any industrial research laboratory in the country."

The target audience of David Sarnoff's birthday gift speech was therefore one in transition, moving away from the familiar world of vacuum-tube technologies and into the enigmatic realm of the solid state. Attempts to develop the General's light amplifier followed a similar trajectory. Engstrom and Ewing's emphasis on fundamental research and the corresponding marginalization of product development in Princeton would also affect the DSRC's organizational standing within RCA and the eventual fates of the Magnalux prototypes developed between 1951 and 1956.

Embracing Electroluminescence

Despite Sarnoff's attempts to distance Magnalux from existing projection setups, RCA engineers' familiarity with that equipment rendered them a logical starting point in the search for a practical light amplifier. Those systems utilized cathode-ray tubes (CRTs), the functional core of RCA's conventional television sets. A CRT was a vacuum tube containing a negatively charged electrode (the cathode) that emitted a stream of electrons when heated. In standard televisions, a set of magnetic coils guided this beam of "cathode rays" across a phosphor-coated faceplate to generate a picture. The basic principle of image creation remained the same for projection systems, with the light from the resulting picture passing through a series of lenses and on to a movie screen. Through the use of multiple CRTs, one could superimpose the primary (red, green, and blue) components of an image, creating a picture that one reporter claimed "might easily have been mistaken by a tolerant eye for a fairly well photographed Kodachrome or Technicolor film."

Theater television demonstrations captivated the press during the 1940s and later served as a powerful propaganda tool during postwar debates over color broadcasting standards. These successes suggested the possibility of a home projection system. No one gave the question more serious consideration than David Epstein, one of the original designers of the optics used in RCA's projectors. Epstein conceded that several issues would need to be addressed to make home projection TV possible. The most significant of these, as Sarnoff had indicated, would be counteracting the reduced brightness associated with image enlargement. During public screenings, RCA engineers had solved this problem through the use of high voltages, several times greater than those used in a typical home television, to maximize their system's light output. Further complicating matters, in small spaces any misalignment of the three CRTs required to generate color pictures produced severe optical distortions.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: A World of Screens

1          The Quest for Magnalux, 1951-1956
2          A Fumbling Prelude, 1956-1966
3          Scattered Origins, 1961-1968
4          Disruptive Displays, 1968-1971
5          The Changing of the Guard, 1969-1976

Conclusion: An Invisible Monument

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