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The Liquid Crystal Turns 50

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With the creation of the pixel, a new way to view the world was born – and it remains a vital link to the way we connect safely in the world

Fifty years ago, a pair of physicists in a Swiss laboratory began untangling a mystery that had been intriguing a handful of other scientists for several years.

Here was their conundrum: Could miniscule electrical jolts unwind the spiral molecular structure of a new substance known as “liquid crystal,” causing the crystals to block light, then re-twist them and allow light to pass through again?

The physicists – Dr. Martin Schadt and Dr. Wolfgang Helfrich – placed the liquid crystal between two plastic surfaces carrying a grid of transparent electrodes. In so doing, they discovered they could create individual picture elements, or “pixels,” which could be used to form shapes.

They filed a Swiss patent for the idea on Dec. 4, 1970. Though it attracted scant attention at the time, the milestone now stands as the birthdate of the liquid crystal display (LCD) – the technological platform which has transformed consumer electronics and presented a brilliant new way to view the world.

Early LCD developers took a few years to figure out that specialty glass, not plastic, was the best stable substrate for the delicate LCD circuitry and the color backplane component. Once they did, they turned increasingly to Corning to supply them with extraordinarily stable, flat, fusion-formed glass, able to preserve the critical properties of the liquid crystal and withstand high processing temperatures.

And LCDs rapidly transformed from “passive matrix” models, mostly used in pocket calculators and digital watches, to “active matrix” LCDs in which each sub-pixel was controlled with an isolated thin-film transistor. AMLCDs enabled wide viewing angles; brilliant, fast-moving images; and high-resolution images that had never been possible before.

Corning Incorporated was a critical player in this development, and eventually became the world’s leading supplier of LCD glass substrates. And Corning? EAGLE XG? Glass, the world’s first LCD substrate with no arsenic or other heavy metals, went on to exceed sales of 25 billion square feet, making it one of the most successful products in Corning’s history.

The technology has also emerged as one of society’s most essential tools for engaging with
the outside world.

Early LCD developers felt they were onto something big when they discovered how shapes could emerge from light-blocking crystals. Corning joined them in providing the best glass substrates to keep improving the technology, believing that glass could shape a future of brilliant, lifelike, go-anywhere displays.

That long view shaped a future of smartphones, tablets, and immersive displays.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic catapulted us all into a new, socially distant way of life, and we used those vivid displays to pivot quickly. We’ve continued to learn, conduct business, be entertained, and interact with one another in creative and spectacular new ways, all through remarkable displays.

And when our society begins to move into a post-pandemic way of life, the newest innovations in displays will help fill future niches and open mental and physical worlds.

Like anything that’s been around for 50 years, LCDs have had a distinct growth curve. In honor of LCDs’ 50th?birthday, we share a look back at their development from novelty to ubiquity

We continue to advance the industry we helped create

Most CRTs have long since headed to the recycling yards, replaced by flat-panel LCD TVs and monitors. Those once-cutting-edge sets are aging, too, and consumers do replace them – but at a far slower rate than when the platform was entirely new.

Still, the market size is enormous. More than 200 million LCD TVs are sold each year, with much of the demand coming from China. Consumer appetite for TVs has remained reasonably steady – with some notable short-term fluctuations – over recent years. Screen sizes are getting larger, and 55- and 65-inch models are commonplace. Corning's Gen 10.5 glass greatly increases economy of scale for panel makers as they produce these very large TVs. Corning launched its first Gen 10.5 manufacturing plant in Hefei, China in 2018.

LCD remains the dominant technology platform for TVs, and sales generally accelerate with new innovations like larger screen sizes, smart TVs, 4K, and 8K.

It’s a remarkable story that began with the breakthrough discoveries of 1970. And it continues with innovators in not only in glass technology, but in every other facet of the electronics supply chain.

We believe their collective story has no end in sight.

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