LIQUID CRYSTAL DISPLAY TRAILBLAZER
RECEIVES LARGEST PRIZE FOR INVENTION
IN THE UNITED STATES
James Fergason’s Achievements
With $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize
CHICAGO (May 3, 2006) — James Fergason just wanted
to know if his thermal sensor was actually working. In 1958, the
young researcher at Westinghouse Research Laboratories began experimenting
with liquid crystals and ended up paving the way for innovations
ranging from forehead thermometers to mood rings, digital watches
to computer monitors, and 3D video systems to flat-panel televisions.
Fergason, who holds more than 130 U.S. patents and more than 500
foreign patents, is being honored today with the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT
Prize, the largest cash prize given in the United States for invention.
The award will be given during a private ceremony at the Museum
of Contemporary Art Chicago.
“James Fergason’s inventions are directly responsible
for the creation of a multi-billion dollar liquid crystal display
industry that employs millions of people around the world,”
said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which
gives the annual award. “But those are not his only contributions
to society. He is also a staunch advocate for independent inventors
and has dedicated countless hours to this cause. We recognize his
outstanding achievements in the awarding of this year’s $500,000
A Fact of Matter
Fergason did not discover liquid crystals, nor was he the first
to experiment with them. However, he said he was “the first
guy who saw what they were really good for.”
As a young researcher, Fergason needed a way to measure the accuracy
of a temperature-measuring device and he thought liquid crystals
may be useful because of their sensitivity to temperature fluctuations
and their ability to reflect colors. At that time, liquid crystals
were a little-known academic curiosity with no clear, useful purpose.
Fergason noticed other interesting properties of the materials
as his experiments progressed. “When I started looking at
liquid crystals, their optical activity caught my eye. They were
intriguing as I got more and more into them. I found all kinds of
things people hadn’t thought about. They were the opposite
of a mirror in terms of polarized light. It was great fun.”
He was issued his first patent in December 1963 for his use of
cholesteric liquid crystals in temperature sensing applications.
This technique is still used today in products ranging from forehead
thermometers to mood rings.
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A Twist on Liquid Crystals
A few years later, in 1966, Fergason was recruited to join the
Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University. There he discovered
the twisted nematic field effect of liquid crystals – the
key discovery that led to the creation of today’s liquid crystal
Fergason observed that liquid crystals are naturally twisted, but
could be untwisted with an electric current. Without a charge, light
can pass through the liquid crystal cell. When varying amounts of
voltage are applied, the liquid crystals can twist up to 90 degrees
like a Venetian blind to block the light’s path.
Earlier attempts to develop LCDs required lots of power that degraded
the liquid crystal materials quickly. “Nobody thought you
could switch polarized light efficiently enough to make a display
out of it,” he said. He proved that shuttering a liquid crystal
requires very little energy, making nematic LCDs a highly efficient
way to control light.
In 1970, Fergason published a paper that broadly defined approaches
for manufacturing nematic liquid crystal displays. He left the Liquid
Crystal Institute and founded the International Liquid Crystal Company
(Ilixco) to pursue his research and commercialize LCDs.
Fergason’s article struck a chord almost immediately in the
electronics community. “I got 1,200 reprint requests, which
is highly unusual for someone in my business,” he said. Companies
from medical devices manufacturers to photocopier manufacturers
were interested in the possibilities afforded by a low-power, low-voltage
display that was compatible with integrated circuit drivers and
produced a good contrast.
Calculators and watches were the first products to benefit from
Fergason’s LCDs. Until then, products with digital displays
lost their battery life quickly, making them undesirable to most
consumers. LCDs were ideal for these low-voltage applications.
The Gruen Watch Company was the first to use Fergason’s technology
and to produce a digital watch with his display. “Everybody
wanted a James Bond watch,” Fergason recalled, “but
when they found out they had to change the battery every two weeks
they weren’t too interested. When they found out they could
have a digital watch and keep the battery for two years, it became
one of the top sellers.”
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Despite the popularity of early LCD devices, their mass-market
penetration in other applications still took another decade.
“When I was getting started, I would go on airplanes and
count the number of products with liquid crystal displays in the
Sharper Image catalogs,” Fergason said. “Twenty, 30,
40 products would have liquid crystal displays. Now you go to the
store and all the games, all the telephones… there are hundreds
of millions of products made with them.”
Over the years Fergason invented a number of other LCD applications.
In 1983 he was issued a patent for surface mode LCDs, which are
used in products ranging from welding helmets to 3D video viewing
systems. The following year he licensed a patent for polymer dispersed
liquid crystals (PDLCs) to Raychem Corporation. These displays are
used to make privacy windows that can change from clear to opaque
with the flip of a switch.
In 2001, Fergason founded Fergason Patent Properties, a company
that broadly licenses his intellectual property on a non-exclusive
basis to expand and enable new markets for electronic displays.
The company is currently developing three new LCD-based technologies.
System Synchronized Brightness Control (SSBC) improves the contrast
and dynamic range of LCDs in flat-panel televisions, desktop and
laptop computer monitors, rear-projection televisions and presentation
projectors. StereoMirror™ 3D Monitors bring a new level of
brightness, color saturation and sharpness to stereo 3D desktop
monitors. The RetroVue™ Head Mounted Projector is a sophisticated
simulation system for in-vehicle training.
A Champion of Independent Inventors
In addition to his impact on today’s consumer electronics
industry, Fergason also champions the interests of independent inventors.
In 2000, the Secretary of Commerce appointed him to the first Patent
Public Advisory Committee. He advised the United States Patent and
Trademark Office (USPTO) on policy and operational issues, and he
helped develop a quality improvement program that is still in effect
Nicholas Godici, a former commissioner for patents and acting undersecretary
of commerce for intellectual property at the USPTO, vividly recalled
Fergason’s reception at the agency’s Independent Inventor
Conferences. “I can still picture Dr. Fergason standing before
a packed house of aspiring inventors telling his story of hard work
and success and the audience reacting as if he were a rock star,”
Godici said. “In fact, Jim Fergason is much more than that,
he is an American hero.”
The Lemelson-MIT Program will also honor Sidney Pestka, inventor
of disease-fighting interferons, with the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT
Lifetime Achievement Award today.
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ABOUT THE LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM
The Lemelson-MIT Program aims to enable and inspire young people
to pursue creative lives and careers. It particularly encourages
young people to engage in invention and to pursue sustainable new
solutions to real world problems. It accomplishes this mission through
outreach activities and annual awards, including the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT
Prize, the largest single award in the United States for invention.
Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the world’s most prolific inventors,
and his wife Dorothy founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology in 1994. It is funded by The Lemelson Foundation,
a private philanthropy that celebrates and supports inventors and
entrepreneurs in order to strengthen social and economic life. More
information is online at http://web.mit.edu/invent.
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