George Heilmeier, Whose LCDs Ushered In Flat Screens, Dies at 77

George Heilmeier, who as a young scientist led the team that created liquid crystal displays, paving the way for flat-panel displays for computers and television sets, has died. He was 77.

He died of a stroke on April 21 at the Medical Center of Plano, Texas, according to his daughter, Beth Jarvie.

Heilmeier ran leading-edge technology programs at Dallas-based Texas Instruments Inc. and was chief executive officer at Bellcore Corp., the Morristown, New Jersey-based research and development unit of the regional telephone companies formed by the 1984 breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. In the 1970s, he worked at the Pentagon on projects including space lasers and stealth aviation.

LCDs, first popularized in wrist watches and calculators, are his most tangible legacy.

At a 1968 press conference at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, Heilmeier’s team at Radio Corp. of America demonstrated the new technology and predicted that the low-cost displays would replace bulky and expensive cathode ray tubes, then used in televisions and many other devices.

Long known to chemists, liquid crystals are fluid compounds that display optical qualities like solid crystals. There were few uses before RCA scientists began to investigate them in the early 1960s.

They discovered that electricity could change their reflective qualities from clear to dark, and over a several-year period, led by Heilmeier, turned this insight into usable technology.

Japan’s Role

The displays became widespread in the 1970s with early applications including gasoline pump meters and reduced-glare auto rearview mirrors. Technological leadership eventually passed from RCA to other U.S. companies and then to Japan.

“They’re cleaning our clock,” Heilmeier said of Japan’s dominance of the liquid crystal display industry he had pioneered, according to a 1991 article in the New York Times. In 2005, he received the Kyoto Prize in advanced technology for his LCD research.

George Harry Heilmeier was born on May 22, 1936, in Philadelphia, where his father, George Heilmeier was a high-school janitor. His mother, the former Anna Heineman was a homemaker.

Heilmeier received a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering in 1958. After joining RCA Laboratories, he entered a Ph.D. program at Princeton University in New Jersey, earning his doctorate in 1962.

Pentagon Service

In 1970, he became a White House Fellow, working with the Defense Department. After serving a year as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, he was appointed as assistant director of defense research and engineering, according to a 1972 Times article.

In 1975, Heilmeier became director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. There he directed development of artificial intelligence and use of brain waves to control weapons.

Heilmeier returned to private industry in 1977 to join Texas Instruments. In 1991, a senior vice president and chief technical officer, he departed for Bellcore to become CEO.

As an adviser to the administration of President Bill Clinton, Heilmeier was an influential voice in setting priorities for the development of the Internet, then referred to as the “Information Superhighway.”

‘Who Cares?’

Among high-tech researchers he was known as the progenitor of “Heilmeier’s Catechism,” a set of questions to clarify the potential of a project, including “What are you trying to do?” and “Who cares?”

Deeply religious, according to his daughter, Heilmeier was also fond of quoting scripture in scientific presentations. But he displayed a lighter side as well, as when he allowed himself to be introduced at a 1989 technology conference as the man “with so much brainpower he has to register it as excess baggage.”

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush awarded Heilmeier with the National Medal of Science, one of many honors he received.

He retired from Bellcore as chairman and CEO in 1997.

Heilmeier held 15 patents.

In addition to his daughter, Heilmeier’s survivors include his wife of 52 years, the former Janet Faunce, and three grandchildren.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.