You probably use items containing an LCD (liquid crystal display) every day. They are all around us -- in laptop computers, digital clocks and watches, microwave ovens, CD players and many other electronic devices. LCDs are common because they offer some real advantages over other display technologies. They are thinner and lighter and draw much less power than cathode ray tubes (CRTs), for example.
A simple LCD display from a calculator
But just what are these things called liquid crystals? The name "liquid crystal" sounds like a contradiction. We think of a crystal as a solid material like quartz, usually as hard as rock, and a liquid is obviously different. How could any material combine the two?
In this edition of HowStuffWorks, you'll find out how liquid crystals pull off this amazing trick, and we will look at the underlying technology that makes LCDs work. You'll also learn how the strange characteristics of liquid crystals have been used to create a new kind of shutter and how grids of these tiny shutters open and close to make patterns that represent numbers, words or images!
Today, LCDs are everywhere we look, but they didn't sprout up overnight. It took a long time to get from the discovery of liquid crystals to the multitude of LCD applications we now enjoy. Liquid crystals were first discovered in 1888, by Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer. Reinitzer observed that when he melted a curious cholesterol-like substance (cholesteryl benzoate), it first became a cloudy liquid and then cleared up as its temperature rose. Upon cooling, the liquid turned blue before finally crystallizing. Eighty years passed before RCA made the first experimental LCD in 1968. Since then, LCD manufacturers have steadily developed ingenious variations and improvements on the technology, taking the LCD to amazing levels of technical complexity. And there is every indication that we will continue to enjoy new LCD developments in the future!