By ROB W. ANDERSON
Nearly 50 years ago, Sparrow Hawk Village resident Robert Willson helped create the first plasma display.
In the mid-1960s, Willson was a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign working with engineering physics professors Don Bitzer and Gene Slottow on a project called the Plato Teaching Project when a fantastic mistake occurred. The scientists were attempting to make a sort of TV display that could be used for a computerized learning system created by Bitzer, and through an electrodeless discharge experiment, the needed bi-stable characteristic was produced.
“None of us knew anything about vacuum physics or gaseous discharge, which is a beautiful thing because we made a serious mistake after the very first experiment,” Willson said. “Well, not serious. It turns out it worked in spite of us.”
Willson, Bitzer and Slottow will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame Wednesday, May 1, at a ceremony expected to be held at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Headquarters in Alexandria, Va.
Willson became a part of Bitzer’s Plato Teaching Project after realizing he had a passionate interest in circuit theories. He had a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics and a master’s degree in physics, but then switched to electrical engineering to work on his doctorate.
He was working on a thesis, titled “A Capacity Coupled Bistable Gas Discharge Cell for Computer Controlled Displays,” and completed it in 1966, when joining Bitzer’s lab.
“Way back then - you probably couldn’t imagine - but then to have a television display that would show teaching kinds of things was really tricky. You had to have some external memory. There were bandwidth problems. There were just lots of different difficulties,” said Willson. “And Don’s interest, that we were pushing, was trying to have a standalone teaching opportunity - one student, one program - like we’re used to with the Internet nowadays.”
They needed a new computer display to make that practical, he said.
“That was really the motive. So I had this assistantship job there, working, looking for something to do a thesis on in circuit theory. One thing led to another, and all of sudden I realized I was in the middle of a wonderful thesis on the physics of this thing we accidentally invented.”
The physical structure of the discharge cell – it would be called a single pixel today – had the discharge volume inside a small glass cavity where the gas was, and the electrodes were outside on the outer surface of the glass.
“This is why the cell can be called an electrodeless discharge cell,” said Willson. “For that to be viable, it had to have what we called a bi-stable characteristic, or a memory, which just meant it had to refire at a smaller voltage than what it took to fire it. The reason that was needed was so you could then have them in a matrix situation and only have the [pixels] light you needed to light.”
Willson said he felt very fortunate to have been part of the project that became the model for plasma display research and technology still being used today.
“It was an ideal thesis. My adviser told me years later, at the time, one of the world’s experts came by and looked at things a year or two later, and apparently there was only one other person in the world researching electrodeless discharges. So I got my thesis finished, got my Ph.D. and went to work,” he said.
The University of Illinois continued the research, and several other companies started to do research, too.
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