LCD Pioneer Made Things Crystal Clear

The Institute mourns the loss of IEEE Fellow George Heilmeier

25 April 2014

Every day you’re likely to encounter at least one LCD display—it’s not only found in televisions and laptops, but also in calculators, watches, and dashboard displays in cars. This and other technology wouldn’t be possible without the work of IEEE Fellow George Heilmeier. An IEEE Medal of Honor recipient and chairman emeritus of Bellcore (now Telcordia Technologies), Heilmeier died on 21 April at the age of 77.

He began his career in 1952 at RCA Laboratories, in Princeton, N.J., where he worked on parametric amplification, tunnel diode down-converters, millimeter wave generation, ferroelectric thin film devices, and organic semiconductors. He also studied electro-optic effects in molecular and liquid crystals.

heilmeier Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 1964 and 1965 Heilmeier discovered several new electro-optic effects in liquid crystals, which led to the first working LCDs based on what he called the dynamic scattering mode (DSM). Application of a voltage to a DSM display switches the initially clear transparent liquid crystal layer into a somewhat opaque, milky state. The first functional active-matrix LCD panel was introduced 1972 by Westinghouse, in Pittsburgh, Pa. This technology would later be used in such portable devices as Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy videogame and the Toshiba T1100, the first commercially successful IBM-compatible laptop. 

Heilmeier’s contribution to LCDs was recognized with numerous awards, including the 1976 IEEE David Sarnoff Award and the 1991 U.S. National Medal of Science. He received the 1997 IEEE Medal of Honor for the “discovery and initial development of electro-optic effects in liquid crystals.” Heilmeier received the 1993 Vladimir Karapetoff Outstanding Technical Achievement Award from Eta Kappa Nu (HKN), IEEE's honor society. He was inducted into HKN as a student in 1958 and was named an Eminent Member in 2000.

In 2006 his work was honored with an IEEE Milestone in Electrical Engineering and Computing. Most recently, Heilmeier shared the National Academy of Engineering’s 2012 Charles Stark Draper Award with RCA colleagues Wolfgang Helfrich and Martin Schadt, as well as T. Peter Brody, a Westinghouse engineer who led the development of the active-matrix LCD display. They were recognized for the “engineering development of the liquid crystal display (LCD) utilized in billions of consumer and professional devices.”


In the 1970s Heilmeier followed a different calling—working for the U.S. government. He was appointed White House Fellow in 1970 by President Richard Nixon. Fellows spend a year as full-time, paid assistants to top-ranking government officials. He was an assistant to the Secretary of Defense, helping to plan long-term R&D projects. The following year he was named assistant director of defense R&D and electronic and physical sciences.

 In 1975 Heilmeier was appointed director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and initiated major projects for stealth aircraft, space-based lasers, space-based infrared technology, and artificial intelligence. While working for the agency he was twice awarded the Department of Defense’s Distinguished Civilian Service Medal—the highest civilian award given by the DoD.

Heilmeier left DARPA in 1977 to join Texas Instruments, in Dallas, where he managed R&D projects in petroleum exploration, systems technology, microelectronics, and software. The following year he was appointed vice president of corporate research, development, engineering and strategic planning. Heilmeier was named senior vice president and chief technology officer in 1983.

In 1991, he was named president and CEO of Bellcore, a telecommunications company, in Livingston, N.J., and served in that position until 1996. He was named chairman emeritus in 1997.

For more information on Heilmeier’s career and contributions, visit the IEEE Global History Network.

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