George Heilmeier, an electrical engineer who in the 1960s helped invent a kind of screen display that used liquid crystals to project images — technology that is now ubiquitous in telephones, digital watches, computer monitors and flat-screen televisions —died April 21 in Plano, Texas. He was 77.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter, Beth Jarvie, said.
In the mid-1960s, Heilmeier was working in a research laboratory of the Radio Corporation of America, better known as RCA, when he and others began experimenting with creating images electronically by manipulating tiny liquid crystals mounted between thin layers of glass.
In May 1968, RCA announced that it had refined the technology well enough to plan for its use in new products, like clocks.
The liquid-crystal display, or LCD, had the potential to revolutionize many consumer products, The New York Times reported the day after the announcement:
“Among the benefits that might ultimately result from the development are: A thin television screen that can be hung on the living-room wall like a painting. Electronic clocks and watches with no moving parts. Television screens and electronic signs whose images do not ‘wash out’ in bright outdoor light, as do displays now in use.”
While all those predictions proved true, companies in Japan were far quicker to embrace the technology than were RCA and other U.S. companies. In Japan, the Sharp Corp. installed some of the first liquid-crystal displays in pocket calculators, digital wristwatches, clocks and tiny television sets before it and other companies expanded their use in laptop computers, video cameras, compact disc players and medical equipment.
Heilmeier was often lauded in Japan. And he lamented that the United States was falling behind in technological development. “They’re cleaning our clock,” Heilmeier told The Times in 1991.
George Harry Heilmeier was born on May 22, 1936, in Philadelphia, the only child of George and Anna Heilmeier. His father was a janitor, his mother a homemaker. He excelled at Abraham Lincoln High School and received a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1958 with a degree in electrical engineering. He earned a master’s and a doctoral degree in solid state electronics and engineering from Princeton.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 52 years, the former Janet Faunce, and three grandchildren.
Heilmeier left RCA in 1970 and spent much of the next decade working on military technology for the government. He first spent a year as a White House fellow, working as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. He later became director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, making him the Defense Department’s top researcher. In that role he helped develop the technology used in the stealth bomber and other military equipment.
By 1978 he had moved to Texas Instruments, where he rose to chief technical officer. There, in the early 1980s, he helped develop an advanced digital signal processor that became integral to digital cameras and other devices. In 1991, he became the chief executive and chairman of Bellcore, a research and development company formed by regional telephone companies after the breakup of AT&T. The company is now called Telcordia.
Heilmeier received 15 patents, some of which he shared with others, including one for the liquid-crystal display. Heilmeier was not alone in developing the liquid-crystal display. Several other scientists, including James Fergason, who worked at Westinghouse and later joined the faculty of Kent State University, made important improvements to the technology.