In the mid-1960s Don Bitzer, the director of the Coordinated Science Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, was tasked with creating the first computer-based instructional system. He recognized immediately that current screen technology would support such a program. A new, brighter display was needed, one that had no flicker and boasted higher contrast than what was then available on screens using cathode ray tubes.
To help create a whole new display technology, Bitzer recruited fellow professor Gene Slottow and graduate student Robert Willson. But as with Rubik’s Cube, whatever solution solved one problem caused others. One spring evening in 1964, Bitzer and Slottow found themselves waiting outside the lab for their wives, who were running late. The pair started talking and soon figured out a way to create color through light emitted by energizing neon gas sealed between two sheets of phosphor-coated glass.
The next morning, Bitzer, Slottow, and Willson started on a three-layer glass model: the center layer featured rows of tiny holes filled with a mixture of gas, while the outer layers were lined with transparent metallic threads to carry the electrical current necessary to excite the gas in the tiny holes. The trio completed the first gas plasma panel, a monochrome display that glowed orange, in July 1964. By 1966 Bitzer, Slottow, and Willson were demonstrating multicolor panels using a gas discharge rich in ultraviolet light and color phosphors that could be used for TVs.
It took 30 years to commercialize gas plasma for consumer TVs. Liquid-crystal display (LCD) technology is behind more than 90 percent of all HDTVs sold today, but it was gas plasma that made possible the creation of large, flat-panel screens less than six inches deep.