With the recent surge in HDTV sales, consumers are also confronted with increasing decisions – LCD or plasma display? What size? What features? And for some, what surround sound package? One may be surprised to learn plasma display panels were invented for reasons other than television entertainment. In fact, plasma screen technology dates back over four decades to 1964.
History of the Plasma Display
Many important events occurred in 1964. As The Beatles forever changed the sound of modern rock-and-roll and the new game-show Jeopardy! debuted on NBC, three men at the University of Illinois concentrated their efforts on constructing the next generation of computer display screens. Donald Bitzer, H. Gene Slottow, and graduate student Robert Willson invented the original monochrome panels for Bitzer’s PLATO Computer system, one of the first computer-assisted instruction systems in the world. In fact, the configuration of the display happened one evening while the men waited for their wives to pick them up from work.
Featuring tiny cells containing a mixture of gases (xenon and neon) placed between two glass panels, the plasma display emits light as a result of the gases being electrically transformed into a plasma, thus stimulating phosphers. Between the glass panels, electrodes create a grid capable of creating a voltage difference between the two glasses, causing plasma to form and gas ions to collide, emitting photons at the precise location on the grid.
For color panels, each cell between the glass panels is coated with a phosphor. When the ultraviolet photons stimulate the phosphors, colored light is emitted. Like traditional screens, pixels in the plasma display are composed of three individual parts – red, green, and blue light phosphors. To produce most visible colors, variable pulses of current flow through the three subpixel parts, leading to extremely accurate color production.
Plasma technology can thus produce a near “true black” color since each pixel can be turned completely off, unlike LCD technology where the backlight remains visible. With its bright display and high contrast ratio, plasma displays contain memory and do not require image-refreshing by rescanning the image, resulting in no flickering and less eye-strain and headaches.
As stated before, plasma displays were invented to reduce vision problems resulting from students staring at educational computer system screens for extended periods of time. The system was enhanced through the use of infrared LEDs on the edges of the screen capable of locating the position of the human finger, thus initiating human-computer touch-screen interaction.
Speaking of the early orange monochrome plasma display, Bitzer said, “It spoke, it recorded – if you were teaching a foreign language, you could hear your own voice. It had touch, it had rear projected images, and graphics. You just had to like orange a lot for the graphics.” (ECE Illinois Alumni News).
As a result of the 1964 creation, plasma screens have hit the market in the 21st century as televisions, a large step from the educational computer systems originally intended to use the technology. Produced primarily in Japan, the plasma technology did not initially catch-on too well in the United States. Why? Asian languages required simple ways to produce public information screens, transportation information, and even checkout displays to accurately display symbols and alphabetical characters.
What happened to the inventors of the plasma display?
Slottow was promoted to associate professor in the electrical engineering department at the University of Illinois where he earned several patents in electronic instrumentation and displays. Receiving numerous awards during his lifetime, including the Frances Rice Darne Memorial Award from the Society for Information Display, Slottow retired in 1986 and passed away in 1989. If he had to do it all over again, Slottow told his brother that he would study music as he was an exceptional jazz pianist.
Willson graduated from the University of Illinois and focused his attention on private industry, working at Westinghouse Electric Corporation from 1966 to 1997. Willson researched low light television systems and the human visual system. Additionally, he conducted research in the Radar Systems Engineering department at Westinghouse, performing algorithm development, system research, and analysis for several radar systems. Retiring to Oklahoma in 2002, Willson teaches several topics on the integration of science and spirituality, from inner child development to psychography. He recently became co-pastor of the Tahlequah Light of Christ Community Church in Sparrow Hawk Village.
Bitzer became a full-time professor at the University of Illinois after the plasma display was presented with the Industrial Research 100 Award, identifying the most important inventions of the year. In 1973, Bitzer received the Vladimir K. Zworkin Award from the National Academy of Engineering. The following year, he became elected to the National Academy of Engineering. In addition, 1982 found Bitzer being named Laureate of the Lincoln Academy by the State of Illinois for “contributions made for the betterment of human endeavor.”
Until he retired in 1989 from the University of Illinois, Bitzer continued to study plasma technology as well as his famed PLATO Computer instruction system. As a member of IEEE, AAAS, the Association for Development of Computer-based Instructional Systems, and the National Engineering Consortium, Bitzer holds many patents and has directed the work of more than 100 graduate students in North Carolina.
As a North Carolina State University Distinguished University Research Professor, Bitzer continues to research and teach. Bitzer’s research focuses on multi-dimensional convolutional coding for communication and the use of signal processing and coding to understand genomic information controlling the transformation process in the production of protein.
In addition to research, Bitzer teaches undergraduate engineering students each year in NCSU’s Department of Computer Science. When he first arrived at North Carolina State University, Bitzer requested to teach the most unpopular and despised course in the engineering program. As a result, Bitzer has turned Discrete Mathematics for Computer Scientists into one of the most popular and enjoyable courses in the engineering program through his unique use of magic tricks and his personable approach to education. In addition, students receive the privilege of a first-hand account of the invention of the plasma display – Bitzer devotes one lecture to explaining and presenting the original plasma display prototypes to fascinated students.
In 2002, Bitzer, Slottow, and Willson each received an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for efforts in advancing television technology – an idea suggested of the plasma display of the 1960s, but not fully realized until recently. In 2006, the three “fathers of the plasma display” were inducted into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame.
“H. Gene Slottow.” Consumer Electronics Association. URL: (http://www.ce.org/Events/Awards/2729.htm).
“Robert Willson.” Consumer Electronics Association, URL: (http://www.ce.org/Events/Awards/2730.htm).
“Engineering News at NC State.” NCSU. URL: (http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/news/news_articles/bitzer.plasmascreen.html).
“Consumer Electronics Association Names Twelve Industry Leaders to the CE Hall of Fame” Consumer Electronics Association, URL: (http://www.ce.org/Press/CurrentNews/press_release_detail.asp?id=10968).