- The TVs of Tomorrow: How RCA's Flat-screen Dreams Led to the First LCDs by Benjamin Gross
By Benjamin Gross. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. Pp. 288.
We live surrounded by LCD (liquid crystal display) screens; Ben Gross's volume explains the origins of this technology at RCA and how the iconic American firm failed to deliver it to the world. This fascinating story of industrial research, corporate politics, and technological change blends science, technology, and business histories. Gross locates the emergence, efflorescence, and decline of LCD screens at the intersection of three distinct axes—the material logic of LCDs, that is their physical chemistry and often recalcitrant behavior plus the infrastructure for their creation and use; RCA's strategic goals as well as the Sarnoff Laboratory's role in fulfilling them; and the interactions among researchers, their managers, and other RCA divisions. One of the many interesting things readers learn is that the technology dominating our lives received so little support from RCA management. Indeed, they ultimately seemed to value LCD patents more than developing televisions based on this novel display technology. Noteworthy are Gross's discussions about the problem of finding the sources needed to write the history of late twentieth-century corporate R&D.
RCA's quest for a follow-up to its color television came in 1951, with legendary founder David Sarnoff's challenge to develop a light amplifier. Efforts ensued to find alternatives to the standard display technology, the CRT (cathode ray tube). RCA pioneered the mass production of these glass bubbles, and it proved hard to break from this anchoring technology. Only after it became clear that CRTs could not be flattened in order to hang from walls and display a quality picture did researchers and management explore and develop alternatives. By 1964, the company's research included liquid crystals and their chemistry; however, as Gross points out, it was never really a large research group. Compared to the well-studied RCA video disc, called a "Manhattan Project," RCA's work on LCDs was a modest effort. Although [End Page 1240] public relations people hyped the research and its potential, this was never a corporate moon shot. Gross rightly highlights the problems in manufacturing the new technology once researchers overcame problems at the bench. Using laboratory notebooks, he delineates how researchers solved the issue of LCDs working at room temperature. Building bridges with RCA's manufacturing divisions became as vital as laboratory research to keep LCD work alive, while management paid more attention to a struggling computer effort and the firm's traditional color television business. Even once the multiple manufacturing problems were solved, the LCDs produced by RCA were for watch displays, not the wall-hanging televisions of the future. The initial secrecy surrounding LCD research demonstrated how highly it was valued, yet RCA soon viewed patents as the real source of value compared to physical products, given the costs and difficulties of profitably manufacturing LCDs in America. Gross's interviews and archival work display the full range of skills required to move lab products to the factory, including individuals with the requisite social skills to borrow resources from other groups. This social aspect of intra-laboratory relations is especially well portrayed.
Gross plays with Clayton Christensen's ideas of disruptive innovation in explaining why RCA failed to capitalize on its role as a pioneer in LCD research. He follows LCD researchers at RCA to a new start-up, Optel that fails to take advantage of new LCD chemistry, instead sticking to RCA-based technologies. Small size did not prevent an aversion to change. In his final eloquent chapter, Gross explains that it was only once LCD technology had left RCA that it really grew and developed—as multiple firms, first on the West Coast and then in Japan, invested in significant R&D with specific products in mind. Seiko developed a watch-sized LCD television more advanced than Dick Tracy's, while Sharp demonstrated a fourteen-inch color display in 1988. Ironically, Sharp had approached RCA in 1970 about...