Saturday, August 17, 2013

From Carrot Juice to LCDs

In all likelihood you are reading this piece on a Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) screen. And, like me, you too would be amazed to know that LCDs have their origins in....carrot juice!

Few of us would spare a thought for something so ubiquitous as LCDs. They are everywhere - from digital wristwatches, to mobile phones and television sets. For something so common, it is difficult to imagine that it took nearly a century for the idea of liquid crystals to turn into products that are so indispensable today.  It also offers lessons on how companies and nations turn weakness into a strength, and vice versa.

Liquid crystals were first discovered by Otto Lehman, a scientist from Karlsruhe, Germany, way back in 1888. Lehman's scientist friend, working in Prague, knowing his craze for crystals of all kinds, told him about some unusual properties of cholesterol extracted from carrots. On closer examination he discovered that this carrot juice extract could refract light like a solid piece of glass, and yet be poured out like any other liquid!

Lehman went on to discover other organic liquids which could twist light in two different directions ("birefringent" properties), published a book in 1904 and managed to persuade a company called Merck, to manufacuture it. From pre-war Germany, the study of liquid crystals expanded to France, England and then to USA, where a company called Radio Corp. America (RCA) had it within its grasp the ability to make the first LCDs on a commercial level. However, RCA let the opportunity pass - it didn't want LCDs to eat into its booming, cathode-tube TV business.

So, in the mid-1970s, RCA licensed the technology to a slew of Japanese companies - Hitachi, Seiko, Sharp, etc.. With their usual zeal for automation and fastidiousness, the Japanese managed to move the technology from labs to the production lines. Then, the leader of the pack, Sony, repeated RCA's mistake.

Hoping to save its best-selling Trinitron TV-tubes, Sony, decided to go slow on the LCDs. From here on, the Korean companies - LG and Samsung - took over, and haven't looked back since.

Today, even through the Korean companies have become undisputed leaders in LCD production & sales, the most critical link in the chain is imported from Germany. Merck, the company that the carrot-juice researcher, Otto Lehman, first approached in 1904, continues to be the world leader in the manufacture of the mother liquid crystals (called Singles / "Licristal").

So Otto Lehman took a closer look at carrot juice extract, and persuaded a homegrown company to start manufacturing liquid crystals in 1904. A century later, the same German company continues to stand its ground as the the display technology got honed in France, UK, USA, and Japan before finally reaching the South Koreans run their massive LCD production facilities at Paju.


* "Soap, Science, and Flat-Screen TVs: A History of Liquid Crystals" -- David Dunmur and Tim Sluckin

* Baker, Nicholson (2013): A FOURTH STATE OF MATTER: Annals of Technology, The New Yorker, Jul 8-Jul 15, 2013

* How LCD works --

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