Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 502:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 502.

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 power.

RCA looked at its huge investment in ordinary picture tubes. Hielmeier's invention was, he says, "more a threat to existing business than an opportunity."

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 electronics.

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 those nails.

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.

(Theme music)

Sanger, D.E., Invented in U.S., Spurned in U.S., A Technology Flourishes in Japan. New York Times, mid-December, 1990 (incomplete citation.)

I tell a remarkably similar, and highly personal, story in Engines episode Number 448.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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