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Title: Crystallizing Innovation: The Emergence of the LCD at RCA, 1951-1976
Authors: Gross, Benjamin H.
Advisors: Gordin, Michael D.
Contributors: History of Science Department
Keywords: LCD
liquid crystal display
liquid crystals
Radio Corporation of America
Subjects: History of science
American history
Issue Date: 2011
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: This dissertation considers the development of the liquid crystal display (LCD) at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) as a means of gauging the degree of autonomy possessed by Cold War industrial researchers. It argues that the assembly of the first LCD prototypes and RCA's subsequent inability to market that technology depended upon the capacity of scientists and engineers at the corporation's Princeton research facility to harness institutional, financial, and literary resources to advance their professional objectives. By focusing its analysis on the workbench instead of the boardroom, this study presents RCA's technical staff as participants in the formation and implementation of corporate R&D strategy rather than passive recipients of managerial policies. Unlike the executives who unveiled LCDs to the public in 1968, this discussion situates RCA's interest in liquid crystals alongside earlier attempts to develop a flat-panel successor to the cathode ray tube. Company chairman David Sarnoff's 1951 request for a "light amplifier" inspired researchers in Princeton to explore the possibility of wall-mounted displays, and the devices they developed over the next five years transformed how personnel throughout the corporation conceived of television's future. Even after budget concerns at the end of the decade prompted management to discourage such work as overly speculative, RCA engineers seized upon military contracts and the firm's renewed interest in digital computing to pursue "mural television" research into the 1960s. Despite the proliferation of flat-panel technologies during this period, only the LCD succeeded in moving from the laboratory to the factory due to the efforts of a research group organized by electrical engineer George Heilmeier. Through progress reports and conversations with managers and marketing experts, Heilmeier and his colleagues persuaded leaders at RCA's laboratories and operating divisions to sponsor their liquid crystal investigations and establish a pilot manufacturing plant. Though this advocacy persisted after 1968, a lack of internal funding and a growing awareness of the LCD's technological limitations provoked concerns among the Princeton staff, whose increasingly pessimistic forecasts of the project's commercial viability contributed to the decision to sell the RCA liquid crystal operation to Timex in 1976.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:History of Science

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