“Our whole system in this country stems back to invention and we need inventors,” said James Fergason. With over 150 U.S. patents, Fergason’s inventive contributions spanned a wide range in the field of liquid crystals. For these achievements, he was named the 2006 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.
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 said, “I look at things very differently because of the role models that surrounded me.”
Shortly after earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri in 1956, Fergason accepted a position as a researcher at Westinghouse Research Laboratories in Pennsylvania, where he formed and led the first industrial research group to study liquid crystals. At Westinghouse, he spent most of his time observing liquid crystals and understanding how they worked. 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.
In the late 1960s, the Liquid Crystal Institute of Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, recruited Fergason for his fundamental understanding of cholesteric liquid crystals. While he was associate director of the Institute, his work with the twisted nematic field effect of liquid crystals evolved, which was a critical step in his career of continuous inventions and innovations in the flat panel display industry.
In 1970 Fergason started his own company, International Liquid Crystal Company (Ilixco), to further study and commercialize LCDs. During the 1980s and 1990s he led self-funded research and technology incubation programs, in which he and his teams focused on the challenges of liquid crystals and display technology. Several patents were acquired, licensed and marketed. He founded Fergason Patent Properties LLC in 2001 to broadly license all of his intellectual property on a non-exclusive basis, and support licensees in integrating inventions into new and improved products that provide value to users.
Over the years, Fergason has 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.
Fergason received both his B.S. in physics (1956) and honorary doctorate in science (2001) from the University of Missouri. He received more than 130 U.S. and 500 foreign patents. In 1998 Fergason was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and received the Ron Brown Technology Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Fergason continued to work on LCD-based technologies until he died in December 2008.
“When you recognize you may have made a mistake, admit it to yourself and go onto the next one,” said Fergason. “Don’t limit yourself to one. Don’t think this one idea is the only one you’re ever going to get and it was an epiphany.”