By Tom Still
APPLETON, Wis. – All too often, American inventions don’t stay home to create companies and jobs. The late George H. Heilmeier has long represented just such a missed opportunity – and he’s now a symbol of why there’s hope for a techno-industrial renaissance.
An American electrical engineer working at RCA in the 1960s, Heilmeier helped invent the kind of screen display that uses liquid crystals to project images. Today, liquid crystal displays – or LCDs – are used in everything from mobile telephones to computer monitors, and from flat-screen televisions to medical imaging equipment.
In 1968, RCA went so far as to announce it had refined the technology for use in clocks. After that, as the New York Times quoted Heilmeier as lamenting in 1991, the rest of the world went about “cleaning our clock.”
Electronics companies in Japan adopted LCD technology much more readily than U.S. companies, including RCA. Japan’s Sharp Corporation installed some of the first liquid-crystal displays in pocket calculators, digital wristwatches and tiny television sets before it and other companies expanded their use in devices such as laptop computers, video cameras and medical equipment.
One of those companies is known today as Foxconn Technology Group, which will bring Heilmeier’s LCD invention back to America for production when it builds a massive plant in the Racine County Town of Mount Pleasant. It will become the first LCD plant outside of Asia.
The story of Heilmeier’s “lost” invention was remembered Dec. 5 during a meeting of the Tech Council Innovation Network at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, where two of the state’s leading computer scientists discussed how information technology in changing the face of virtually every Wisconsin industry.
Guri Sohi and Jignesh Patel of the UW-Madison Department of Computer Sciences, one of the nation’s highest-ranked programs, talked about how computing is disrupting industries such as manufacturing, insurance, financial services, agriculture, biotechnology, healthcare and transportation – all part of the Wisconsin economic fabric.
Department chairman Sohi, renowned for his groundbreaking work in parallel computer processing, noted that job openings in computing far exceeded actual degrees granted from 2002 to 2012 – and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects more of the same scarcity by 2024.
Patel, whose startups include one company acquired by Twitter, said artificial intelligence, “big data” and the Internet of Things are realities today and are driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It will be a revolution that further democratizes how people and companies work through better computing algorithms and cheaper data, which will produce results in food, clothing, shelter, health, security and entertainment.
It’s a natural successor to the first three Industrial Revolutions, Patel said, which included the advent of machines in the late 18th century; the rise of electricity, petroleum and steel in the late 19th century; and the rise of computing and the internet in the mid-to-late 20th century.
Sohi and Patel – both immigrants of humble backgrounds who became U.S. citizens – argued that Wisconsin is ideally suited to prosper from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, especially if it takes care to cultivate homegrown ideas, nurture resources related to computing in academia and industry, and move to keep its most talented people at home.
They even chose to quote the late Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, who told the team: “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”
While I’m not sure Lombardi had artificial intelligence in mind when he cajoled his team, the notion of building on Wisconsin’s economic foundation through technology should be a natural for policymakers and private industry.
Foxconn’s arrival in the United States, where it will build an LCD industry that could have been rooted here decades ago, is one obvious example. George Heilmeier would approve.