OSA mourns the loss of James L. Fergason, pioneer in liquid crystal displays

Photo by Chris Conroy
James L Fergason 12-09-08 Photo by Chris Conroy

James L. Fergason, an OSA Fellow known as the father of the modern liquid crystal industry, died on December 9, 2008. He was 74.

Fergason was born in Wakenda, Mo.and attended the University of Missouri. After graduating with a B.S. in physics in 1956, he joined the Westinghouse Research Laboratories in Pennsylvania, where he formed and led the first industrial research group in liquid crystal research. His pioneering work earned him the first patent on the practical use of cholesteric liquid crystals, which he filed in 1958 and received in December 1963. The patent was for a color-sensitive material that was used for mood rings and similar products in the 1970s.

Fergason joined the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio in the late 1960s. As Associate Director, he discovered the twisted nematic field effect of liquid crystals, which forms the scientific basis of modern LCDs. In 1970, Fergason started his own company, International Liquid Crystal Company (Ilixco), to further study and commercialize LCDs. His first customer was the Gruen Watch Co. of Switzerland, which used the technology to market the first liquid crystal display (LCD) watches using the technology. Most of the world's digital watches now use this kind of LCD display.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Fergason led self-funded research and technology incubation programs in which he and his teams focused on the challenges of liquid crystals and display technology. He founded Fergason Patent Properties LLC in 2001 to broadly license all of his intellectual property on a non-exclusive basis and to support licensees in integrating inventions into new and improved products that provide value to users.

Over the years, Fergason invented a number of other LCD applications such as surface mode LCDs, polymer dispersed liquid crystals (PDLC), head mounted displays (HMD), and eye protection technology.

Credited with more than 130 US and 500 foreign patents, Fergason was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1998. He was awarded OSA’s David Richardson Medal in 2007 “for outstanding contributions to the understanding of the physics and optics of liquid crystals, and particularly for his pioneering contributions to liquid crystal display technology,” and he was named an OSA Fellow in 2008. Fergason was the recipient of numerous other awards and honors, including the Ron Brown Technology Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce (1998), the Lemelson-MIT Prize (the "Oscar for Inventors" (2006) and the IEEE Jun-Ichi Nishizawa Medal (2008). Through his professional organizations, he also mentored independent inventors. Serving on the U.S. Patent Office advisory board, he supported efforts to improve the quality of patents.

Fergason was raised in rural Missouri and attended a one-room school, followed by a small high school. The youngest of four children, Fergason grew up reading science books, admiring his older brothers – the oldest studied electrical engineering and the other chemistry – and imagining himself exploring and inventing new things. His grandfather was a child prodigy who graduated from college at age 15. His cousin was an agricultural engineer who invented numerous machines for farming and garnered over a hundred patents. Fergason once said, “I look at things very differently because of the role models that surrounded me.” An advocate for youth science education, Fergason provided support to the OSA Foundation and Rochester Local Section of OSA which enabled the distribution of Optics Suitcases to students around the world.

Fergason is survived by his wife of 52 years, Dora, four children and 10 grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held in January.

If you would like to make a memorial donation to the OSA Foundation in honor of James L. Fergason, please visit www.osa-foundation.org/give.