Today in Tedium: I have to admit something about myself. I’m color eInk curious. The technology has been finally hitting reaching regular consumers for the first time in recent months thanks to ebook readers that aren’t made by Amazon, and they look pretty cool. Not good enough for the average person just yet, but good enough to experiment with, as seen by the fact that color eInk is generally for sale in kit formats for tinkerers. (Side note: If anyone is a manufacturer of an eInk computer monitor, I will gladly daily drive it for you as a guinea pig and tell the world whether it’s any good.) In a few years, it might be good enough for regular people to want to use. In some ways, really good flat-screen LCD displays were kind of the same way. The technology was in the oven for years before it was good enough to replace what came before. But having a technology is not the same as turning it into a mainstream product, as the tale of the active-matrix LCD panel shows. In today’s Tedium, we dig into LCD’s early years. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The year the first thin-film transistor, or TFT, was developed by RCA engineer Paul K. Weimer, an inventor with many patents to his name related to cathode ray tube technology. His work, inspired by prior innovations, proved a fundamental building block that led to the creation of modern display technology. RCA later used this as the basis for early technology for building liquid crystal displays, which were further improved by a competitor of theirs, Westinghouse.
The invention of the active-matrix LCD display is an excellent example of a common inventor’s trope
The history of electronics has no greater story arc than that of the inventor (or group of inventors) who develops something brilliant, only for the company he worked for to disregard it out of concern it didn’t match the corporation’s needs.
Here are just a few stories I’m aware of that fit that general timeline, some better-known than others:
David J. Collins, a key innovator in the history of the barcode, toiled away at Sylvania for years, developing the device to be used on rail cars, before the company ended up blowing off his idea—and he struck out on his own, to much success.
The Xerox Alto, an early example of the GUI in action, was largely ignored by Xerox until the early 1980s, after which point a noted visitor to Xerox PARC, Apple executive Steve Jobs, borrowed its basic concepts for the Apple Lisa and Macintosh.
Kodak invented many of the general concepts for the digital camera under its own roof, but inventor Steve Sasson was told to set his invention aside at first, with Kodak only belatedly embracing a device that its own employee invented.
This is another story just like those, except this one involves the very screen you’re probably looking at, especially if it’s based on LCD technology.
In the 1970s, a pair of engineers that worked for Westinghouse, T. Peter Brody and Fang-Chen Luo, came to develop the first active-matrix LCD screen. Brody, born in Hungary, had gained an interest in the fledgling technology of thin film transistors, an experimental technology that had come to be seen as a potential avenue for visually displaying content in a more compact form than a cathode-ray tube.
In a patent filing, the creators emphasized that the technology was feasibly possible, but that it required a different technical basis than the silicon usually relied on for moving transistors around.
“It has been apparent for some time that a solid-state flat panel display is conceptually achievable,” the patent filing stated. “Efforts to utilize silicon technology to this end are limited by the size limitation problems of the silicon wafer, which negates achievement of large area displays.”
Just some pixels under a microscope, no big deal.
So instead, the creators used thin-film transistors on a substrate of glass, which allowed the device to be firm, but thinner, while also allowing light through. The thin film was held into place with an insulator layer with an electrode conducted over the screen. The device, a six-inch square, could display objects at a resolution of 20 lines per inch. (Comparatively, a MacBook Air has a resolution of about 227 lines per inch, and we also describe the result in pixels per inch today.)
While today trying to see the individual transistors within a screen is fairly hard without, say, a microscope, in the 1970s, it was fairly easy—and as a result, when Time Magazine wrote about the invention in 1974, the outlet described the result as “a graph-paper-like-pattern in which there are 14,400 points of intersection.”
While admitting the device was still relatively crude, and with “a resolution only good enough to display letters, numbers and simple images in silhouette,” it nonetheless highlighted the potential for flat screens to someday replace bulky CRTs. Brody described the modest device in the Time article as “probably the world’s largest integrated circuit,” rather than simply as a screen.
As the patent filing notes, it was not the only kind of thin screen around during this era—for example, gas-plasma technology, which gained popularity in television sets in the early 2000s, had offered terminals on the early PLATO computer system their famed orange hue.
But it was the starting point of the technology that stuck. By the mid-1990s, active-matrix displays that relied on color became the norm in laptops, thanks to their combination of vivid color and thinness. But despite the concept coming from an American company’s R&D department and improved by other American R&D departments, nearly all panels were developed by Japanese manufacturers even at the beginning of their mainstream use cases.
The problem? Well, the technology that Brody and Luo developed never caught on within Westinghouse, in part because the corporate structure was moving away from televisions entirely as the company struggled in that market. As the MIT Technology Review wrote in 1991 amid a quick rise in color laptops in the computing space, Westinghouse had quit selling televisions in the early 1970s, and the company actually shut up shop on the development arm of the company that allowed Brody and his team to develop the device.
In fact, Westinghouse’s efforts with the flat-panel LCD display ended way back in the 1970s, as did similar efforts at other large U.S. companies. “Both large corporations and venture capital-backed start-ups have quit the field, usually after hitting production difficulties,” authors Richard Florida and David Browdy wrote.
Observers within Westinghouse interviewed for the piece said that the technology was great, but deadlines were frequently missed, as William Coates, who worked in the company’s consumer electronics department, said that these ended up turning the company off of relying on an innovative technology.
“Every aspiration we had, every milestone we set, we missed,” he said. “We missed timetables and we missed cost.”
There is a clear lesson to be found in this: If someone sucks as a manager but has a good idea, get them a better manager.
The amount of time, in milliseconds, that it took a passive-matrix screen to update, in comparison to the (at the time) 15 to 30 milliseconds that an active-matrix screen took, according to a 1991 InfoWorld article. During that period, passive-matrix displays were becoming common among laptops being built during this era, because of the cost savings that the lower-quality screens offered when laptops cost as much as a used car. The article noted, however, that the success of passive-matrix screens was destined to be short-lived. “Even today’s staunchest backers of passive-matrix color technology acknowledge that the future of color on the portable will most likely be active matrix,” authors Lisa Picarelle and Tom Quinlan wrote. “As yields become better for TFT active-matrix displays, prices will inevitably go down.”
The reason why our LCD panels are mostly made in Asia comes down to big tech’s hesitancy to invest
In digging into the rise of active-matrix LCD, the thing that I’m struck by is how similar the growing pains were between LCDs and eInk. Often, eInk has been a solution in search of a problem, without the needed investment to truly take it to a mainstream place outside of the e-book market where it has slowly improved over the years.
But eInk had long failed to add color to the mix for the average product, despite many tries, with technologies such as Mirasol failing to capture the attention of manufacturers despite massive investments by large companies.
On the other hand, the problem with active-matrix LCD was less that there was no interest in the product and more that big companies didn’t want to make the investment.
And this is reflected by what Brody did after Westinghouse gave up on its LCD effort for good. In response, Brody started his own company, Panelvision, in an effort to further development and to commercialize active-matrix LCD technology, which other companies were also working to develop at this time. Active-matrix technology held a key advantage over many other types of display technology being used in computer screens of the time—viewing angles. Lower quality LCDs, such as those using passive-matrix technologies, faced issues with low light quality and blurriness, and were not as usable, say, if you were outside.
“As you increase the number of rows, you have more and more difficulty picking out each element, and you get cross talk between them,” he explained in a 1985 Popular Science article. “In other words, you have to hit the row with a hard enough charge to activate the LCD elements, but not so hard that the adjoining pixels come on.”
Brody correctly predicted in the piece that the market for LCD screens would become more inexpensive over time as production hit scale. But there was a problem—ultimately, Brody’s company would not be the one to develop these technologies at scale. Not long after he did that interview with Popular Science, in fact, he left the company he created after it was sold—and had even more trouble finding interested parties for his follow-up company, Magnascreen.
Part of this was that other global competitors were coming in and coming up with stronger innovations. Matsushita (now known as Panasonic) and Hitachi, for example, would heavily invest in their own TFT-panel technologies starting in the 1980s, with their R&D work culminating in the development of in-plane switching (IPS) technology in the 1990s. IPS is the kind commonly used in laptops even today.
But there were broader cultural issues that harmed American manufacturers of TFT displays as well, as highlighted in the MIT Technology Review’s 1991 piece on the topic, Brody ran into multiple walls in terms of gaining investment, with the general belief among technology companies that would have benefited from Panelvision’s work that they simply needed a supplier to build the technology for their devices, and didn’t want to have to do the hard work of investing in that technology themselves. (Also not helping: Panelvision was based in Pittsburgh, which somehow seemed further away from the Silicon Valley action than Japan did.)
This was actually somewhat of a widespread problem, as much research work was done in Western countries, as an article by the Electrochemical Society notes, but not much actual production.
“Some American and European companies and universities were actively involved in R&D activities and greatly contributed to the understanding of the device physics and process technology,” author Yue Kuo explained. “However, few large-scale production facilities were built.”
Part of this is that nailing down the details of a good LCD display was hard—not unlike the challenges that have faced the producers of color eInk displays.
But Japanese companies had no qualms with making this kind of investment, and as a result, an older generation of massive technology companies essentially ceded an entire fundamental technology to another part of the world. As Florida and Browdy wrote:
Unfortunately, the experience of Magnascreen, Panelvision, and Westinghouse is not unique. Like Westinghouse, other big companies—RCA, GE, Burroughs, IBM, Raytheon, Zenith, Hughes, Texas Instruments, NCR, AT&T, and Exxon—incubated and then abandoned flat-screen display technologies. As with Panel-vision and Magnascreen, the remnants of their efforts gave rise to a host of new companies: Plasma Graphics, a spinoff from Burroughs; Electro-Plasma, from Owens-Illinois; and a raft of others, most of which failed. None has developed high-volume production capability.
By failing to capitalize on a big initial advantage in a crucial technology, U.S. corporations have allowed foreign competitors to overtake them. Today, there are no significant active-matrix LCD factories in the United States. In the past few years, four Japanese corporations—Hitachi, Matsushita, Seiko Epson, and Sharp—have invested more than $100 million in such plants in their own country. Hoshiden makes screens for the Macintosh portable. Sharp builds screens for the new Texas Instruments notebook-size computer. IBM recently formed a joint venture with Toshiba, Display Technologies Inc., to produce 10-inch color active-matrix displays for its computers in Japan.
Now, to be clear, there is no requirement that technologies invented in one country stay in that country. In fact, globalization is generally a good thing, as its benefits tend to help everyone.
But it’s strange to consider that the potential of this fundamental technology, one that you probably are using right now to read this (unless you decided to print this article or continue to use a CRT for some reason), was essentially discarded by an entire country because of an unwillingness to invest in the manufacturing.
The year that Ching Tang and Steven Van Slyke, two researchers at Eastman Kodak, developed the first practical organic light-emitting diode (OLED), which used two layers of thin organic components to generate a display with the ability to generate light at the pixel level, rather than relying on a backlight to do so. This technology, developed based on innovations at places like RCA decades prior and later improved to support full color screens, has become a key element for smartphone and high-end television screens in the modern day. (And unlike the developers of active-matrix LCD technology, Kodak actually collaborated with a Japanese company, Sanyo, on its development, though Sanyo eventually bought Kodak out.)
In many ways, the fact that the flat-screen LCD panel was actively allowed to develop elsewhere reflects the nature of the information economy that drives much of the Western world. Rather than building it here, we basically ceded it to companies who built in-depth specializations in the technology.
Not putting money behind the factories or the manufacturing helped these companies avoid some of the natural risk that comes with an untested technology. But it also gave a specific part of the world effective control of the manufacturing process for a key component. And it means that when things go wrong—as has been happening lately with widespread component shortages in key display chips—it makes us more susceptible to risk.
A video of a smart television factory in action.
Obviously I’m not going to tell you that people making decisions about investments are thinking about the game in quite that way—if anything, they’re thinking about their own needs, rather than of the market in general. But it does make one think what the technology industry might look like had a key component not been ceded to one area of the world so quickly. Clearly, the world would have been better off if display technology was being built and improved on in many places.
We can at least say one thing is true, and it’s something that T. Peter Brody correctly predicted 40 years ago, at the start of an Inc. article about his move away from Westinghouse: “The cathode ray tube, like the brontosaurus, will become extinct, and for the same reason: too much bulk, very little brain.”
He was absolutely right about that, and significantly more right than either his employers and investors gave him credit for. Why couldn’t they see what he did?
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