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The TVs of Tomorrow

How RCA’s Flat-Screen Dreams Led to the First LCDs

In 1968 a team of scientists and engineers from RCA announced the creation of a new form of electronic display that relied upon an obscure set of materials known as liquid crystals. At a time when televisions utilized bulky cathode ray tubes to produce an image, these researchers demonstrated how liquid crystals could electronically control the passage of light. One day, they predicted, liquid crystal displays would find a home in clocks, calculators—and maybe even a television that could hang on the wall.
Half a century later, RCA’s dreams have become a reality, and liquid crystals are the basis of a multibillion-dollar global industry. Yet the company responsible for producing the first LCDs was unable to capitalize upon its invention. In The TVs of Tomorrow, Benjamin Gross explains this contradiction by examining the history of flat-panel display research at RCA from the perspective of the chemists, physicists, electrical engineers, and technicians at the company’s central laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey.
Drawing upon laboratory notebooks, internal reports, and interviews with key participants, Gross reconstructs the development of the LCD and situates it alongside other efforts to create a thin, lightweight replacement for the television picture tube. He shows how RCA researchers mobilized their technical expertise to secure support for their projects. He also highlights the challenges associated with the commercialization of liquid crystals at RCA and Optel—the RCA spin-off that ultimately manufactured the first LCD wristwatch. The TVs of Tomorrow is a detailed portrait of American innovation during the Cold War, which confirms that success in the electronics industry hinges upon input from both the laboratory and the boardroom.

288 pages | 43 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018


Economics and Business: Economics--History

History: American History, History of Technology

History of Science

Media Studies


"Historian of science Benjamin Gross uses laboratory notebooks and in-depth interviews with scientists at RCA to reconstruct the scientific path to the LCD. Gross also has a sharp eye for business history and explores the company’s difficulties commercializing its new technology. The book will appeal to anyone interested in the intersection of scientific innovation and industrial research."

Physics Today

"This text could easily be compared to Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Soul of a New Machine (1981); it chronicles the drama, intrigue, and intense work of countless researchers over decades in the development of the liquid crystal television display. David Sarnoff, radio and TV pioneer and longtime head of RCA, predicted in 1956 that wall-mounted, flat-screen TVs would populate our homes in just a few years. Though this prediction would take several decades and countless fits and starts to come to fruition, the world Sarnoff envisioned is fully a reality. Gross documents RCA's own failure to significantly profit from its years of research that laid the groundwork for the introduction of flat-screen LCD displays, which resulted in a major shift in how video is entwined in modern society. Gross, former curator of the Sarnoff collection at the College of New Jersey, provides a very readable, exceptionally well-researched analysis of the scientists whose years of research eventually led to a quantum leap in how video technology impacts our lives today. An informative, engaging resource for anyone interested in the history of early electronic research. Recommended."


"As much a cautionary tale for corporate technology creators as it is a story of personal triumph and pioneering scientific exploration. Importantly, the work examines the highs and lows from the perspective of RCA's scientists, technicians, and engineers. . . . Superbly researched, The TVs of Tomorrow includes extensive archival information and interviews with many of the story’s real-life players. . . . Sit with the book and you, too, will find that the story is a worthy one."

Information Display

"Gross’s deep dive into RCA’s technical archive provides a corrective to histories that overemphasize managerial prerogative in directing research agendas. The TVs of Tomorrow offers an engaging case study of the contingent nature of scientific discovery taking place inside Cold War–era corporate research labs."

The Journal of American History

"Benjamin Gross leads readers into the Sarnoff Center's glory days of postwar electronic innovation and the creation of technologies that continue to define contemporary life. . . . Gross knows his stuff. . . . this generally
lively and informative 288-page book will appeal to history buffs."

Princeton Info

"Gross has examined RCA’s lab notebooks and archival records in meticulous detail. He also knows his science, and the book gives comprehensive explanations of key developments. . . . A welcome change for those scientists and engineers who complain that historians skimp on the painstaking process of discovery. In other words, this book is not about the content of television shows or about the infrastructure required to create television networks. (Gross never pretends otherwise.) It is about the engineers and scientists at a single company who doggedly pursued a technically difficult problem, even after RCA’s leadership lost interest in their work."


"This fascinating story of industrial research, corporate politics, and technological change blends science, technology, and business histories. . . . [The] social aspect of intra-laboratory relations is especially well portrayed. . . . Among the volume's strengths is how Gross carefully elaborates on the nature and quality of his sources. . . . [A] fascinating study."

Technology and Culture

“Exquisitely researched and illustrated, Benjamin Gross’s The TVs of Tomorrow allows us to peer into the witches’ brew of factors and figures—corporate impulses and intrigues, the materiality of substances, the consumptive logics of electronics, laboratory and manufacturing cultures, serendipity and systemization, and the individuality of chemists, physicists, and engineers—in which LCD technology emerged at RCA from the 1950s into the 1970s. This story of industrial science and technology is an important contribution to our understanding of the black mirrors with which we have added a new layer of electronic reality to the old, and within which so much of contemporary life is lived.”

David C. Brock, Director of the Center for Software History at the Computer History Museum

“A fascinating insight into the struggles which accompanied the development of the first liquid crystal flat screens at RCA’s Princeton laboratories. Based on extensive original archival research and interviews with the original participants, the story will be of interest to economic historians, economists, business theorists, historians of science, and certainly to practicing scientists and engineers. This beautifully written book brings out particularly well the pathos associated with the fact that the final economic fruits of this ingenuity were enjoyed by other companies in far corners of the globe, and hopefully will give cause for reflection amongst those who make economic and industrial policy everywhere.”

Tim Sluckin, University of Southampton

Table of Contents

Introduction: A World of Screens

1          The Quest for Magnalux, 1951–1956
2          A Fumbling Prelude, 1956–1966
3          Scattered Origins, 1961–1968
4          Disruptive Displays, 1968–1971
5          The Changing of the Guard, 1969–1976

Conclusion: An Invisible Monument

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