The World At Your Fingertips: A Brief History of Mobile Display Tech

Believe it or not, mobile displays are the product of over one hundred years of innovation.
Christopher McFadden

The development of mobile displays, which we spend an inordinate amount of time staring at every day, is the product of a long line of innovations. 

Much like the human eye, the final product that is the mobile display is the fruit of a very long line of incremental changes. Some were enormous leaps forward, others tiny improvements on existing and proven tech, but all vitally important for modern mobile phone displays. 

Not only that, but their development hasn't stopped. The future of mobile devices could, ironically, end up mimicking one of humanity's oldest and most ubiquitous technologies - paper. 

What are some of the milestones in screen technology history?

Here we will explore some of the major steps in the development of modern mobile displays. The following milestones are not all of the events that have occurred since the development of cathode ray tubes but are some of the most notable and/or interesting.

1. The cathode ray tube (CRT) kicked off the history of displays

mobile displays crt
Source: Blue tooth7/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1890s

The history of most modern displays can be traced back to the birth of the cathode ray tube. This tech was first demonstrated in 1897 and was invented by Karl Ferdinand Braun.

Braun was a Nobel-prize-winning physicist and inventor. A cathode ray tube is a vacuum tube that produces images when its phosphorescent surface is struck by electron beams.

In 1907, Russian scientist Boris Rosing used a CRT to transmit crude geometrical patterns onto a "television" screen. The technology would later be further developed and was first commercialized in the 1920s. It was the dominant form of display for many devices until it was surpassed by LCD, Plasma, and OLED.

2. Electroluminescence and LEDs lay the foundations for the future of mobile display technology 

mobile displays LED
Source: PiccoloNamek/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1900s

Electroluminescence, a natural phenomenon, was first observed by British experimenter H. J. Round in the early-1900s. His discovery would later lead to the first LED being developed by a Russian inventor, Oleg Lossev, in 1927. However, Lossev's work failed to attract much interest at the time. It was the 1960s before a commercial LED was developed.

This would literally lay the foundations for the future development of LED technology that we know and love today.

3. Solari board/Flip-Flap disc displays were great fun

history of displays solari boards
Source: CTLiotta/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1950s

Another important step in the history of displays was the invention of Solari boards. 

Solari boards, otherwise known as Flip-Flap boards, were once a common sight in public transport stations and airports. They have since been replaced with digital monitors, but can still be found in some places around the world.

These were electromechanical display devices capable of displaying alphanumerical text and/or graphics, as needed.

Each character position was printed on one or more flaps that were rotated to form a concise message. The sight, and especially the sound of them, is still fondly remembered by anyone who had the pleasure of experiencing them in their childhood.

4. The vacuum fluorescent display was leagues ahead of its time

mobile displays VFD
Source: Atlant/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1950s

Vacuum fluorescent display, or VFD for short, was once commonly used on most consumer electronics equipment, such as microwave ovens, calculators, and video cassette recorders. A VFD operates on the principle of cathodoluminescence, which is roughly similar to a cathode ray tube, but operating at much lower voltages. 

The very first VFD was a single indication display introduced by Philips in 1959.

Many other iterations of the technology would appear over the following decades and it can still be found today, although it has largely been replaced by LEDs and LCDs, which have lower power requirements.

5. Monochrome plasma was a big step forward in the history of displays

mobile displays mono plasma
Source: Mtnman79/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1960s

Although the principle behind this tech was first described in the 1930s by a Hungarian engineer, Kálmán Tihanyi, it wasn't until the 1960s that the first practical example was developed.

The first monochrome plasma display was developed by the University of Illinois' Donald Bitzer, H. Gene Slottow, and graduate student Robert Willson for the PLATO Computer System.

It provided a rather garish orange-monochrome color and became very popular in the 1970s. The tech also had some popularity in the 1980s when IBM introduced a 48 cm orange-on-black display.

6. Another important step in the development of screen technology was the stroboscopic display

history of displays rasa
Source: Sergei Frolov/

Period: 1960s

Stroboscopic displays first appeared in the 1960s and were an interesting piece of technology. They were first used in the Russian RASA calculator and worked by spinning a cylinder, using a motor, to display a number of transparent numerals.

For a numeral to actually be displayed, the calculator briefly flashed a thyratron (a type of gas-filled tube) backlight behind the numeral, when in position.

7. The twisted-nematic effect made LCD technology practical

mobile displays LCD
Source: Panja-san/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1960s

Liquid crystals were accidentally discovered in 1888 by Austrian botanist Friedrich Reinitzer while he was studying cholesteryl benzoate in carrots. In 1962, Richard Williams, a physical chemist at RCA Labs, was trying to find an alternative to CRTs. He was aware of research into nematic liquid crystals (a nematic liquid crystal causes the polarization of light waves to change as the waves pass through it, based on the intensity of the electrical field) and thought this might prove to be a fruitful avenue to explore.

He discovered that when an electric field was applied to a thin layer of liquid crystals, the crystals would form stripe patterns and enter into a nematic state.

Richard later turned the research over to his colleague at RCA, George H. Heilmeier, who led a team that would discover a way to operate the crystals at room temperature and led to the first liquid crystal displays.

RCA was able to show the world the first LCDs in 1968.

8. The touchscreen finally makes its ascendence

mobile displays touchscreen
Source: Victorgrigas/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1960s

Touchscreen technology was one of the critical developments of modern mobile displays. The idea was first suggested in 1965 by Eric Johnson, an engineer at the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern, England.

The first touch screen was developed in 1972 for use as a computer-assisted instruction system and had a fixed number of programable buttons. In 1977, Elographics developed and patented a resistive touch screen technology, and produced the first curved glass touch sensor interface, which was the first device to have the name "touch screen" attached to it. 

Home computers with touch screen technology were introduced in 1983 by HP, and touch screen technology was soon being manufactured by the likes of Fujitsu, SEGA, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and HP, to name but a few. 

9. Electronic-paper might just be the future of display technology

mobile displays
Source: SONY

Period: 1970s

Electronic paper, or e-paper for short, was developed in the 1970s, but first became popular in the early 2000s. This kind of display, as the name suggests, is able to mimic the appearance of ordinary ink on paper.

It is flexible, reusable, and can be erased and rewritten on thousands of times.

Like OLED, and unlike backlit displays, electronic paper is able to generate its own visible light yet can maintain the luster of traditional paper.

Ideal e-paper displays are those that can be read in direct sunlight without the image suffering from any fading effect. Many of these displays are able to hold static text and images indefinitely without the need for electricity.

Notable examples of its application are e-reader devices like Amazon Kindle etc. You can also find them used as electronic pricing labels, digital signage, and on some smartphone displays.

There is currently a huge investment by smartphone manufacturers to release their own flexible display mobile devices for consumers.

10. Electroluminescent displays are less common today

history of displays ecds
ECDs in a 1966 Dodge Charger. Source: Jonathan Gibbs/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1974

Electroluminescent displays (ELDs) first appeared in the early 1970s. These are flat panel displays that consisted of electroluminescent material layers sandwiched between two conductors.

As current flows, the layer of luminescent material emits radiation in the form of visible light.

ELD's are less common than other types of monitor display but can be found in industrial, instrumentation, and transportation applications.

One of the main features of an electroluminescent display is that it provides a wide viewing angle as well as a clear and sharp image. Most electroluminescent displays also tend to be monochromatic.

11. The super-twisted nematic field effect is bringing LCD monitors ever closer

mobile displays STN
Source: Kristoferb/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1980s

Super-twisted nematic field effect, or STN for short, was first invented at the Brown Boveri Research Center in Switzerland in 1983. They began to be used in some early portable computers in the 1990s, like the Amstrad PPC512 and PPC640.

A later development, CSTN, or color super-twisted nematic, was developed in the 1990s. These were color forms of passive matrix LCD that were developed by Sharp Electronics.

These would begin to appear in early mobile phones, like the Nokia 3510i.

12. Thin Film Transistor LCDs become a reality

mobile displays TFT
Source: MaGioZal/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1980s

Thin film transistor LCDs are variants of LCDs that integrate thin-film-transistor technology to improve image quality. This form of display uses an active matrix LCD, in contrast to passive or direct-driven LCDs like its ancestors.

For comparison, an example of direct-driven LCDs is the displays of calculators. Today these are commonly found in many devices from TVs to computer monitors to sat navs and much more.

13. Full-color plasma roars to life

mobile displays plasma
Source: Jari Laamanen/Wikimedia Commons

Period: 1990s

The year 1995 saw the introduction of the world's first 107cm plasma display thanks to Fujitsu. It had an impressive 852 x 480 resolution and was progressively scanned.

Philips followed suit shortly after in 1997 with their own version. Plasma TVs were exceedingly expensive at this time, with the average price tag somewhere in the region of $15K.

Other companies like Pioneer, soon began to make and release their own versions.

And that is all for today folks. There are but some of the major developments in history that would eventually lead to the development of the not-so-humble, mobile display. 

Without any one of these steps, it is unlikely that modern touchscreen, full-color screens would ever have been developed. 

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board