Discovery versus Innovation
Botanists, Television, and the iPad
by Paul Sloane
Liquid crystals were discovered in 1888 and are now used in most TVs and computers (including the iPad).
Liquid crystals represent a state of matter which exists between solid and liquid states. They were first discovered in 1888 by Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer who was studying cholesterol at the Charles University in Prague. Reinitzer described three important features of cholesteric liquid crystals; the existence of two melting points, the reflection of polarized light and the ability to rotate the polarization direction of light. These discoveries remained of academic interest only until they were put to practical use some 80 years later when teams at RCA Labs and Kent State independently created early liquid crystal displays by manipulating the crystals with electrical charges. The displays first appeared in digital clocks and watches, but in 1984 LCD resolution improved to the point where it could display images instead of mere text, allowing computer makers to create lightweight laptops and free PC users from their desks.
There are two instructive lessons in discovery and innovation here. The first it that it often takes a long time between the initial discovery of a principle and its application in a product. The second is that a botanist discovered something that was eventually developed into a product by physicists and engineers. It is at the intersection of the sciences that some of the greatest innovations happen.
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