Martin Schadt (right) saw the potential of LCDs.
Martin Schadt (right) saw the potential of LCDs.

Justifiably miffed, physicist Martin Schadt, one of two great minds behind the invention, was tempted to leave Roche. His co-inventor, Wolfgang Helfrich, already had. A sympathetic head of research, however, refused to lose the incredibly talented scientist and persuaded Martin to stay, though work with LCDs remained on ice.

A few more efforts were made to revive LCD research at Roche over the years. When it became clear that it was better suited to commercial use rather than healthcare applications, Roche sold the technology in the 1990s. Martin continued his work with LCDs in other industries for the rest of his career, accumulating 166 patents in the EU and earning the European Inventor Award for his lifetime of achievements.

It’s hard to imagine a world without computer monitors, digital cameras and calculators. LCDs are everywhere – you’re probably even reading these very words on an LCD screen! Although not every promising innovation leads to solutions for patients, the journey – knowing when to trust and follow the science – is invaluable in and of itself, no matter where it leads.

Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) are part of our everyday life. You might not notice them at first – so accustomed we are to their presence – but at this very moment, an airport schedule is directing passengers to their gates and a gruesome horror movie is generating screams from a giant flat-screen TV. LCD technology is in your watch, your smartphone and your video game console. But there’s a hidden story to LCDs you probably don’t know about, though it’s one that’s not so uncommon when it comes to scientific breakthroughs: a promising invention born in a lab ultimately metamorphosed into something unexpected.

Liquid crystals are organic compounds in a physical state somewhere between solid and liquid. As early as the 1960s it was understood that they refract light and change direction once electricity is introduced. Roche dove into liquid crystal display (LCD) research in the early 1970s, hoping that the new technology would have an enormous impact on healthcare. Researchers were mesmerised by the possibility of light-weight, lightning-fast displays that could flash sharp medical readings in milliseconds without the risk of overheating.

It didn’t take long before the basis for how to produce LCD technology, the “twisted nematic field effect” (or, for non scientists, how to corral liquid crystals into a usable form), was discovered in the Roche labs.

A patent for Roche was granted in 1970. Unfortunately, powerful dissenting voices felt strongly that liquid crystals weren’t a good fit for the Roche portfolio and did not believe in LCDs’ potential to revolutionise medical electronics. From one day to the next, the cutting-edge technology with enormous potential for diagnostic and surgical instruments was shelved.

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