U.S. Patent Office sign (above) applies to Fergasons

COURTESY PHOTO - Terri Fergason NealTerri Fergason Neal’s fascinating book, “Mr. Liquid Crystal: The Untold Story of How James L. Fergason Invented the Liquid Crystal Display” ($18.95, New Insights Press), is a tribute to her father, the inventor James L. Fergason.

OK, so he may not exactly be a household name, but Fergason was the first researcher to explore the practical applications of “liquid crystals” and then followed with the invention of the twisted nematic liquid crystal display or TN-LCD. He went on to invent many things in the course of his 50-plus year career, holding more than 150 domestic and 500 international patents.

You can be sure that this independent inventor is a rock star in certain circles. That’s both because he took on some very big companies that tried to claim his inventions as their own, and because he did it all without a PhD.

Fergason invented the twisted nematic liquid crystal display (TN-LCD) used in the digital world all around us: our LCD keyboards, cellphones, digital displays on clocks, dashboards and watches.

The author enlisted the help of Portland-based editor and writer Marian Pierce to present her dad’s story with clarity, explaining the science in an engaging way that even we English majors can follow. The result is a science story, yes, but one with an approachable narrative and a warm-hearted scientist at the center of the action. We learn quite a bit about U.S. patent law along the way, too, and negotiating licensing deals.

“No one knows who he is, but we look at things every day that utilize liquid crystals,” says Neal, the oldest of four siblings.

COURTESY PHOTO - 'Mr. Liquid Crystal'So, what exactly is a liquid crystal? “Certain organic materials have a state between solid and liquid; they react to temperature, electricity and magnetism, and change accordingly. A great visual example is a mood ring, Neal says. “Those are liquid crystals, they’re iridescent and really beautiful.”

“My dad decided to write about his life as an inventor,” she adds. “But he was dying of cancer at the time and wasn’t able to finish it, so I really wanted to finish the book for him.”

Drawing on Jim’s writings, we visit each important milestone in his career, such as:

“I began searching for a liquid crystal which would be liquid over a wide temperature range. The mixtures always tended to crystallize at some temperature and separate into their component parts. I started looking for a liquid crystal system which was temperature sensitive and would not separate. I also measured the optical properties in liquid crystals which had very little temperature sensitivity. In short, I took on the task of making a laboratory curiosity into a useful technology.”

Neal lives in Portland and her dad was living in the Bay Area at the time of his death. He told a reporter in 1964 that he found “nothing more fun than being an inventor. Maybe it’s the same thing that makes people paint. It’s very creative. I’m doing things for the first time — things no one else had done — and it gives me a hell of a high.”

Her dad’s early years were modest, growing up after the Depression. Bright and curious, he and his brothers took things apart, deconstructing and reconstructing machines to figure out how they were made. He joined ROTC to help pay for college and also worked as a teaching assistant. He married young and got his first job at Westinghouse. When he returned from military service, Westinghouse had ended his research and so he took up liquid crystals, realizing that little had been done with them since their discovery by a scientist in Prague in 1888 who was studying carrots at the time. And he was off to the races.

“He never stopped. It was a passion for him. He was funny, and would bring things home that I would take to show and tell,” says Neal, who worked for her dad at his second company, ALX. “He was always thinking of new ideas and new uses for LCs (liquid crystals).”

There where highs and lows during his career in inventing. His first company, ILIXCO, was struggling. He wanted to create a display business in Ohio but he needed to support a growing family, so he ended up selling the rights to the TN-LCD to Hoffman-La Roche, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. Later there was a protracted fight with Hoffman-La Roche.

Neal was in college during his first lawsuit. “I didn’t really know what was going on but things were tough. He couldn’t work in the middle of a lawsuit,” she says.

So Fergason ending up settling. A later lawsuit involved Tektronix for infringing on a surface mode display he invented.

Neal says talking to all the colleagues and researchers who worked with her dad was one of the most rewarding parts of this project.

“He was so well-liked and he inspired so many people,” she says, and he also credited the people who assisted him in his discoveries. Not always the case in competitive fields.

Fergason was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.

“He is joyful in that photo,” says his daughter. To receive that recognition, she says, was the moment he’d been waiting for. “Yes, it was him. He invented it!”

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