Today, another Japanese lesson in patience, and the
meaning of creativity. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Late in 1990, George
Heilmeier went to Nara, Japan to get an award for
an old invention. Twenty-five years before, he'd
worked for RCA on television picture tubes. Picture
tubes are big clumsy things. They're the reason
your TV set won't fit in the bookcase. Heilmeier
said, "Surely we can do better."
He saw how to turn a field of liquid crystals on
and off with a computer. Steady light flows through
the tiny flickering crystals to create a picture.
He gave birth to a new kind of screen -- flat and
thin. Today those screens can give wonderfully
clear, sharp images. And they draw very little
RCA looked at its huge investment in ordinary
picture tubes. Hielmeier's invention was, he says,
"more a threat to existing business than an
The Japanese took a longer view. They set out to
recreate TV. You've seen an early form of those
flat screens on laptop computers. Now, in Tokyo,
you can buy a battery powered TV set that lies flat
in the palm of your hand.
The full-blown technology still isn't ready for an
everyday market. The problem is production. Those
screens are very hard to make without flaws. You
have to start five or ten large, high-resolution,
screens to get just one good one. So far, sets cost
over $10,000. But engineers at Sharp and Hitachi
will figure out how bring them within our reach.
Japanese businessmen have invested in a 10 to 20
year pay off. They've sustained themselves with a
brisk trade in single color computer screens.
Meanwhile they wait for large flat color-TV screens
to mature. When they do, Japan will own one more
building block in the control of hi-tech
So it was that the Japanese honored George
Heilmeier for his invention. Some might say he'd
driven another nail into the coffin of American
industrial power. He did not, of course.
Impatience, and greed for short term gain, drove
The liquid crystal screen also teaches us a lesson
about creativity. We make a big mistake if we think
those screens only copy an American invention.
We see something else when we look closely. We
learn that creativity is recognition. Heilmeier
recognized a new possibility, of course. But so did
the Japanese. They recognized it, and they
undertook long-term risk to claim it. And that's as
much the stuff of creativity as invention is, in
the first place.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're willing to look in new places to see
how inventive minds work.