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

Mobile displays are the product of over one hundred years of technological development.

The World At Your Fingertips: A Brief History of Mobile Display Technology
mobile displays depositphotos

The development of mobile displays that we spend an inordinate amount of time staring at every day is the product of a long line of innovations. It is interesting to think that the screen you are likely reading this text on, is the product of over a hundred years in technological advancement.

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Much like the human eye, many things in the world are the final product of a long line of incremental changes. Some enormous leaps forward, others tiny improvements on existing and proven tech.

Displays have come a long way since the black and white, often grainy, devices of the 1920s. Today, they are not only in color but have been made much smaller, thinner, lighter, and even include touchscreen technology.

And their development hasn't stopped. The future of mobile devices could, ironically, simply mimic one of man's oldest and ubiquitous technologies of all time - paper. 

In the following article, we will explore some of the major steps in the development of modern mobile displays. The following 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 started it all

Period: 1890

mobile displays crt
Source: Blue tooth7/Wikimedia Commons

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. His device was able to produce images via electron beams bombarding a phosphorescent surface.

The technology would later be fully developed and was first commercialized in the 1920s. It was the dominant form of display for many devices until only recently being surpassed by LCD, Plasma, and OLED.

2. Electroluminescence and LEDs lay the foundations for the future

Period: 1907

mobile displays LED
Source: PiccoloNamek/Wikimedia Commons

Electroluminescence, the natural phenomena, was first discovered by British experimenter H. J. Round. His discovery would later lead to the first LED being developed by a Russian inventor, Oleg Lossev, in 1927.

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

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

Period: 1950s

Solari boards, otherwise known as Flip-Flap board, 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 sound of them, is still fondly remembered by anyone who had the pleasure of experiencing them in their childhood.

4. Vacuum fluorescent display was leagues ahead of its time

Period: 1959

mobile displays VFD
Source: Atlant/Wikimedia Commons

Vacuum fluorescent display, or VFD for short, is one of the most prevalent display technologies of all time. And, most importantly, it was the first to be developed.

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The very first appeared in 1959 and was introduced by Philips in their single indication DM160.

Many other iterations of the technology would appear over the following decades and it is still a common sight on things like car stereos today.

5. Monochrome plasma was a big step forward

Period: 1960s

mobile displays mono plasma
Source: Mtnman79/Wikimedia Commons

Although the principle was first described in the 1930s by Kálmán Tihanyi, a Hungarian engineer, 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.

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6. Stroboscopic Display

Period: 1960s

Stroboscopic displays first appeared in the 1960s and were an interesting solution. 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 backlight behind the numeral, when in position.

7. The twisted-nematic effect made LCD practical

Period: 1962

mobile displays LCD
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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 and thought this might prove to be a fruitful avenue to explore.

After experimenting with some various compounds and tin-oxide electrodes, he found that a strong electric field across the setup would yield stripped patterns.

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Richard later turned the research over to his colleagues at RCA, like George H. Heilmeier, who further developed the tech. Eventually, RCA was able to show the world the first LCDs in 1968.

8. The touchscreen makes its ascendence

Period: 1965

mobile displays touchscreen
Source: Victorgrigas/Wikimedia Commons

Touchscreen technology was one of the critical developments of modern mobile displays. The idea was first suggested in 1965 by Eric Johnson.

They first appeared in the 1980s and 90s and were introduced to the market by the likes of Fujitsu, SEGA, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and HP, to name but a few.

The first commercial device to include the technology was the 1992 IBM Simon. Another company, FingerWorks, further developed the technology in 1998 to include gesture recognition.

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They were later bought out by Apple.

9. Electronic-paper might just be the future

Period: 1970s

mobile displays https://static.interestingengineering.com/images/MAY/sony-digital-paper.jpg
Source: SONY

Electronic paper, or e-paper for short, was first 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.

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

Like OLED, 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.

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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

Period: 1974

Electroluminescent Displays (ELDs) first appeared in the early 1970s. These are flat panel displays that consisted of layers off electroluminescent material 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.

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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. Super-Twisted Nematic bring LCD monitors every closer

Period: 1980s

mobile displays STN
Source: Kristoferb/Wikimedia Commons

Super-twisted nematic field effect, or STN for short, was first invented at the Brown Boveri Research Center in Switzerland in 1983. The 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 LCD

Period: 1980s

mobile displays TFT
Source: MaGioZal/Wikimedia Commons

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 are 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

Period: 1995

mobile displays plasma
Source: Jari Laamanen/Wikimedia Commons

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

Philips followed suit shortly after in 1997 with their own version. Plasma TVs were excessively expensive at this time with the average price tagging being in the region of $15K.

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