Soap, Science, and Flat-Screen TVs: A History of Liquid Crystals

January 20, 2011

David Dunmur and Tim Sluckin provide an inside view of the science of the liquid crystals that are responsible for the displays that have not only become our windows into the digital world, but have also offered structural insights into living systems. The authors ably address a non-expert readership, separating the subject's technical and historical aspects to achieve clarity in both so that they can authoritatively address the diverse controversies in the story.

The rhetoric employed is not modest: the impact of liquid crystal displays on human life is likened to the invention of the wheel, and the authors refer to science in the "pre-liquid crystal age". The task of bridging the science and history of liquid crystals is set in the context of the "two cultures" issues raised by C.P. Snow. To the authors' credit, this ambitious view of the subject is convincingly conveyed, with both wit and generosity of insight.

The discovery and characterisation of materials that differ from gases, liquids or solids took place in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. Soap, Science, and Flat-Screen TVs chronicles the triumphs and bitter feuds that led to understanding that there is indeed a fourth state of matter, even before the invention of X-ray diffraction had put the nature of crystals beyond doubt.

In the early 1930s, the subject was brought before the English-speaking world in an initiative by Sir William Bragg and J.D. Bernal, and there are vivid accounts of these meetings at a turning point in the science and politics of liquid crystals - and of Europe.

The theoretical basis had started to emerge from Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany. This would later furnish descriptions of liquid crystals without which the multibillion-dollar investment in display manufacture could never have occurred. More directly, the Russian physicist V.K. Frederiks, who died in the Gulag, described liquid crystals switching in an electric field and, as the authors note, "in some deep sense, Frederiks was the inventor of the modern display device".

Liquid crystal science survived the devastation of Europe in the Second World War and the Cold War, with distinguished participants living under the Third Reich and behind the Iron Curtain. In the 1960s, initiatives at RCA Laboratories in the US and at the Royal Radar Establishment in Britain moved the focus from the ancient universities of Europe to industrial display development.

It was the "twisted nematic" structure - which was first described in 1911 by Charles-Victor Mauguin but would await a breakthrough by Scottish mathematician Frank Leslie in 1970 - that really launched liquid crystal displays. Patents were filed in Europe and a little later by competitors in the US who claimed priority. The commercial rivalries in display development are described here with the same diplomacy and generosity used in recounting earlier, more academic conflicts. In Britain, George Gray retained an advantage for European chemistry that continues to this day, producing the first stable nematic liquid crystal materials for this application, and these would come to dominate the industry. In 1991, the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Pierre-Gilles de Gennes of France for his work in bringing liquid crystals into the mainstream of modern physics.

But as far as displays are concerned, it can hardly be said that "the rest is history". Many other innovations were needed, and crucial developments (some of which are described in this book) continue at a rapid pace. But we must set alongside the achievements described here those of the engineers and scientists in Japan and the Far East who have invested their ingenuity and wealth over decades to create a global industry in a manner that proved impossible in the West.

The liquid crystal display has changed the world and will continue to do so. Liquid crystal science, now refined and clarified, is moving on to consider self-organisation and self-assembly in living systems. It has wide implications, from supra-molecular science to nanotechnology, and the next century is liable to be as astonishing and surprising as the last. Soap, Science, and Flat-Screen TVs is a true and valuable history of its first 100 years, embracing as it does both the scientific literature and the history and socio-economic background of the individuals and institutions that make up the story.

Soap, Science, and Flat-Screen TVs: A History of Liquid Crystals

By David Dunmur and Tim Sluckin. Oxford University Press 368pp, £29.95. ISBN 9780199549405. Published 4 November 2010

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