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The TVs of Tomorrow

How RCA’s Flat-Screen Dreams Led to the First LCDs

Benjamin Gross

The TVs of Tomorrow

Benjamin Gross

288 pages | 43 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018
Cloth $40.00 ISBN: 9780226519975 Published March 2018
E-book $40.00 About E-books ISBN: 9780226540740 Published March 2018
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.
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
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index
Review Quotes
David C. Brock, Director of the Center for Software History at the Computer History Museum
“Exquisitely researched and illustrated, Benjamin Gross’s The TVs of Tomorrow allows us to peer into the witches’ brew of factors and figures—corporate impulses and intrigues, the materiality of substances, the consumptive logics of electronics, laboratory and manufacturing cultures, serendipity and systemization, and the individuality of chemists, physicists, and engineers—in which LCD technology emerged at RCA from the 1950s into the 1970s. This story of industrial science and technology is an important contribution to our understanding of the black mirrors with which we have added a new layer of electronic reality to the old, and within which so much of contemporary life is lived.”
Tim Sluckin, University of Southampton
“A fascinating insight into the struggles which accompanied the development of the first liquid crystal flat screens at RCA’s Princeton laboratories. Based on extensive original archival research and interviews with the original participants, the story will be of interest to economic historians, economists, business theorists, historians of science, and certainly to practicing scientists and engineers. This beautifully written book brings out particularly well the pathos associated with the fact that the final economic fruits of this ingenuity were enjoyed by other companies in far corners of the globe, and hopefully will give cause for reflection amongst those who make economic and industrial policy everywhere.”
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