A world of flat screens
Published on 6 December 2018
The technology that made the ubiquitous LCD screen possible can be traced back to a former jute shed in Dundee
The core mission of the University of Dundee is to transform lives, through the creation, application and sharing of knowledge.
Our work has led to new ideas for drugs and medical treatments, has influenced policy changes in many areas, and shaped the world we live in. Behind every piece of research there lies a story. One of the most fascinating is that of how Dundee helped drive the development of the screens that fill the world around us, from our smartphones and tablets to ever larger and clearer televisions.
"I think it was one of the single most impactful things to come out of UK universities, if you look at the world around us today," Professor Mervyn Rose said. "Anything that uses an LCD screen has come out of the work that was done in developing transistors in Dundee."
The technology that made the ubiquitous LCD screen possible can be traced back to a former jute shed in Dundee, which in the 1970s and 80s became the world centre for pioneering research in electronics, led by Professors Walter Spear and Peter LeComber.
This a tale of world firsts, outstanding resourcefulness, and silent bagpipe playing...
Professor Mervyn Rose
The people who were known as the 'flat TV group' at the University were easily recognisable on campus for a long time.
They were the people whose trousers were almost uniformly black from the knees upwards, the result of having to sit at desks which had been charred in a major fire but put back in to use.
"Everything we worked with was either toxic, explosive, or both," said Dr Rod Gibson, who along with Professor Rose was part of the flat TV group working under Professors Spear and LeComber. "So there was always the risk of a fire. In 1982 the building was gutted but we were up and running again within six months. In refitting the facilities, Walter decided we could just flip the tops of the desks and put them back to use. Unfortunately that meant the underside of them was charred black with soot that rubbed off on your trousers every time you sat at a desk!
"It is a funny story but it also illustrates the kind of resourcefulness that was deployed at every turn to allow us to get on with things."
In the days when cash was not always forthcoming, or a main imperative of research, Walter Spear continually showed his inventiveness, and was famed for often building complex circuits and devices in tobacco tins to provide electrical screening, and for recycling brass components for vacuum chambers from one experiment to another. This frugality was to enable remarkable strides to be made with very modest resources.
Fire damage at the University of Dundee Physics department, 1983. Image from the University of Dundee archives
A successful partnership
Walter Spear arrived at Dundee in 1969 as Harris Professor of Physics, having previously worked at the University of Leicester. He was joined in Dundee by his former student Peter LeComber, and the two formed a research partnership that was soon to have a huge impact.
Their research into the transport properties of crystalline solids, liquids and amorphous silicon was at the cutting edge of developments in semiconductors and transistors. Initially the work was very much curiosity driven but it was soon to find application.
left: Walter Spear in 1968, right: Peter LeComber in 1981. Images from the University of Dundee archives
Fascinated by the potential of materials like solidified rare gases to act as conductors for electrical charge, their attention was drawn to thin film amorphous silicon. They and their students developed new techniques that were summarised in a breakthrough scientific paper in 1975, where they demonstrated that dramatic changes in conductivity were possible.
This started a revolution in the field of amorphous semiconductor research by making inexpensive silicon-based, thin film electronic devices possible. Companies and groups across the world started studying the material.
Spear and LeComber followed that paper with another world first when the amorphous silicon thin film transistor was announced. This was demonstrated in the active matrix liquid crystal display made jointly at RSRE (the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment) in Malvern. This device, which is now found in virtually every notebook display and mobile phone screen in the world, forms the basis of the multibillion dollar market in flat panel displays.
"It was an amazing time to be working here," said Professor Rose.
"Dundee was known all over the world, we were the prime name in this field. In the 1970s and 80s we had PhD students coming here from all over the world, and a constant stream of industry visitors. We had an incredibly strong group working in this area. We were well represented at all of the major conferences and people literally queued up for talks from the Dundee group."
One of the regular visitors was the Nobel Prize winner, Professor Sir Nevill Mott. He and Walter Spear developed a long term friendship, Walter introducing him to the joys of malt whisky during their conversations long into the night on Mott's frequent visits to Dundee.
Professor Mervyn Rose
A departure from the norm
The department was not without its eccentricities. Among a stream of highly accomplished PhD students was a German student, Fred Goesmann.
"Fred loved to play the bagpipes and when he was practising you could hear it right across the campus," said Rod. "It drove Walter mad so he came up with an ingenious solution – he told Fred he could practice the bagpipes any time he wanted, but only in the anechoic chamber, which completely deadens noise. So you had this bizarre sight of a German bagpipe player who no one could hear."
An opportunity missed?
The Dundee work was part of great innovation across the UK in electronics.
"The other major influencers were the University of Cambridge, where a lot of the theory of semiconductors was developed, and the team working with liquid crystals at the University of Hull," said Professor Rose.
The breakthrough work at Dundee led to Spear receiving the European Physical Society Europhysics prize in 1976 and the Max Born Medal and Prize for Physics in 1977. Impressively, LeComber published over 170 papers and co-invented 10 patents.
The Flat TV Group in the 1970s. Image from the University of Dundee archives.
However, while Dundee's work was part of the great innovation in electronics emanating from the United Kingdom over this period in the 1970s and early 1980s, many of the commercial benefits were realised elsewhere. This was an era when the commercialisation of research coming out of universities was not harnessed in the same ways it is now.
"The vision for this technology was not greatly supported by the bodies advising on commercial application and development at that time," said Professor Rose. "The Dundee group were advised that these weren't very great transistors and that the potential for commercial application was limited at best. So it wasn't something that was commercialised to the extent it could have been.
"Frankly, the UK could have had a company equivalent to some of the tech giants in the Far East if the country had properly got behind this kind of research but in the late 1970s and early 1980s that just wasn't happening. The UK essentially gave up some of what it had invented. Other places around the world were far better equipped to move things on than we were. I certainly don't think that would happen now."
A sense of achievement
Nonetheless, for members of the team, there are everyday reminders of what was achieved during a period of exciting research breakthroughs. All of our devices which use flat screen technology are supported by the work that Spear, LeComber and colleagues did.
In time, the research group dissipated. "There was a sense the team had done it. We had achieved the research results we had aimed for and the work was published and out there for the world," said Rod. "Things tailed off around the late 1980s. A lot had been discovered, the theory became very complex and we didn't have the theoreticians that were necessary to take things on. Also, the cost and sophistication of film growth equipment were becoming prohibitive. But we knew our group at Dundee had achieved something scientifically and technologically of the greatest significance."
The work and the impact is created was recognised by the US-based Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineering (IEEE), the largest technical professional organisation in the world, in April this year when they unveiled a milestone plaque at the university laboratories where Spear and LeComber carried out their experiments. The ceremony was attended by visitors from around the globe.
Dr Rod Gibson
The pioneering spirit evident in the work of the flat TV group continues to be seen across our vast portfolio of research, including in engineering, physics and computing.
Dundee is established as a world leader in spacecraft electronic systems, where the work of Professor Steve Parkes and colleagues has helped send more than 100 craft into space.
We are also helping take the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the world's largest scientific experiment and the site of the discovery of the Higgs Boson, to new levels of performance through the breakthrough laser work of Professor Amin Abdolvand and colleagues in the School of Science and Engineering.
By Roddy Isles
With thanks to Mervyn Rose and Rod Gibson.
Banner image: the flat TV group in the anechoic chamber, 1970s, University of Dundee archive
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