James L. Fergason
Born on a small Missouri farm during the Great Depression, he became a pioneer of liquid crystal optics. Among the top inventors in the history of the U.S., Jim held 150 U.S. patents and 500 foreign patents in the field. The patent examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) called him “Mr. Liquid Crystal” and he was treated like a rock star by fellow inventors, though his name is unknown to the general public.
His concept for the TN-LCD was only the starting point of the applications of this technology. As he often said, “An idea is not the same as an invention.” Making a viable commercial liquid crystal display required developing a system of interacting elements, each with particular optical, electrical, and mechanical properties. Other researchers concerned that a display utilizing optical filters called polarizers would not be bright enough had rejected their use, but Jim explored polarizers, sought improved types and invented a unique, non-depolarizing reflector located behind the rear polarizer that is twice as efficient as the conventional reflecting surface. Jim invented the spacer seal, a thin polymer film that holds the two pieces of glass in a display together and acts as a barrier preventing the liquid crystal from seeping out and moisture from seeping in. He also developed the most extraordinary component, the surface alignment coating, a very thin, oriented polymer film that guides billions of molecules in the liquid crystal layer to align into a one-quarter twist.
Additional inventions he made using liquid crystal technology include those that dramatically increased the switching speed of liquid crystals, which opened doors to new applications like 3D movies and rapid motion images. He also invented the nematic curvilinear aligned phase device, which consists of micro-droplets of nematic liquid crystals with unique optical and electrical properties that are encapsulated in a flexible polymer film to make architectural windows that look like opaque frosted-glass shower doors but can then be electronically switched on to suddenly turn clear.
Jim was one of the last independent American inventors to follow in the tradition of the greatest independent inventors such as Nikola Tesla, Edwin Land, George Washington Carver and Edwin Howard Armstrong, all of whom thrived at the turn of the 20th century. Like them, he worked mostly on his own in small laboratories he funded himself over his lifetime, rather than in industrial corporations.
Jim and Tom Harsch at Induction ceremony.
For his achievements, Jim was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He received the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the Jun-Ichi Nishizawa Medal and many other prestigious awards, but he often donated his prize money to support independent inventors and to fund science scholarships for college students.
He was always generous in sharing his knowledge with others, and educated the people who worked with him by constantly discussing various liquid crystal theories and ideas for devices, and using his broad technical knowledge and good judgment to guide their work. Like two Missourians he admired, Mark Twain and George Washington Carver, he remained humble and approachable even after achieving fame within the field he loved. When the University of Missouri awarded him an honorary PhD in 2001, the new “Dr.” Fergason told a reporter, “Don’t call me Doctor. The only doctorate I ever earned was in the school of hard knocks.”