An inventor of the liquid crystal display bases his life’s work on frugality
By Jackie Mitchell ’14
James Johnson ’63, ’65G hasn’t owned a car in 20 years. His tiny (10 feet by 20 feet), cement-block house in Sarasota, Fla., contains only the bare essentials. He has no telephone or computer. Calling from his neighbor’s house, the former chemist, who was involved in the invention of the modern day liquid crystal display, explains his life has always been driven by the concept of simplicity.
Even as an ambitious young child, Johnson, who tries to live on as little money as possible, was focused on eliminating wastefulness and making things work as simply as possible. His aim was to design machines, toys, gagdets, and products with fewer parts, making them simpler and more efficient. His curiosity urged him to discover how anything from cameras to thermometers to television sets worked, why they worked, and how he could improve them.
“I was thinking about things nobody else seemed to think about,” says the self- proclaimed dreamer and visionary. “I definitely wasn’t the average kid.”
Johnson’s childhood home was situated next door to a garbage dump, so he would frequent this so-called treasure field, hunting for gadgets to analyze and dissect. He envisioned a world where appliances contained no moving parts and everything was wireless. At age 13, the math and science whiz constructed a chemistry lab in his basement. The same year he built his own solar-powered furnace. He lived down the street from General Electric’s Nela Park, a lighting research center in East Cleveland. When he needed to add supplies to his lab – such as a Bunsen burner, test tubes, or beakers – his engineer neighbors were happy to oblige.
“I told my mother that someday my molecules would change the world,’” he says.
As a graduate teaching assistant at John Carroll, the chemistry major taught general chemistry and qualitative organic labs that led him to a seven-year stint as a chemistry teacher at Manatee Junior College in Bradenton, Fla., that began in 1965. But the promise of a career requiring invention and innovation drew him back to Cleveland in 1971. After responding to an ad in a newspaper for an organic chemist at a budding company called Ilixco, he was hired by James Fergason, pioneer of the modern LCD.
Liquid crystal display
As chief chemist at Ilixco, Johnson – known to many simply as JJ – was tasked with creating the extremely complex and top-secret formalization that comprised liquid crystals. The oily-looking mixture was soon in demand by the millions. It was so highly coveted, the company set up secret labs throughout the country.
“This device had a life of its own,” says
Johnson, who was drawn to the product because of its ability to conserve energy. Fergason and Johnson had a strained relationship and didn’t always get along because of their different viewpoints about the product. “His part of the development was the physics of it, and my part was designing molecules and getting them to behave in certain ways to produce an image that was sharp,” Johnson says about their roles at Ilixco, which put Cleveland on the map as the birthplace of the modern LCD.
Eventually, the company expanded to about 2,000 employees, making about 70,000 displays a day, which were used for digital watch displays and pocket calculators.
“We knew in the beginning this invention would change everything,” Johnson says. “I knew it, and Jim Fergason certainly knew it. We knew the future, that this thing would change television, computers, and everything else.”
In 1974, a life-altering accident projected Johnson on a different course. As he was pouring five gallons of ether into a large batch of about three kilos of liquid crystal, another chemist turned on a defective vacuum pump, causing a spark to detonate a cloud of ether around Johnson. He was flung across the room as flames crept up his arms and face.
“I felt like I didn’t have a face left when I was laying on the ground,” he says.
After all of his childhood chemistry experiments, this wasn’t the first explosion Johnson was involved in, but it was the last. He decided the dangers of the job were too significant and abandoned the volatile chemistry business and never returned.
“I was tired of playing with this hazardous and flammable material,” he says. “You could get killed.”
Johnson lost touch with Fergason after his departure. The original Ilixco, also known as International Liquid Crystal Co., failed shortly after Johnson left. Fergason’s son, Jeffrey, created an investment holding company of the same name in 1996.
“I took the name to honor my father, but Ilixco has no direct LCD business,” says Jeff Fergason.
Despite the company’s collapse, the legacy of the LCD lives on. The device is found in laptop computers, flat screen displays, digital watches, and cellphones.
After leaving Ilixco, Johnson set his sights on his other childhood passion, the space program. He recalls launching rockets in his backyard at age 14, then experimenting with chemicals to create better rocket fuel in his basement chemistry lab.
“I was interested in extraterrestrial exploration and finding other worlds and other realities,” he says. “That’s been in my head since I was a kid.”
In 1974, Johnson pursued this dream and took a job as nuclear sales engineer at Reuter Stokes in Cleveland (now a measurement and control division of GE), traveling throughout the country to nuclear installations and solving their nuclear-related problems. His job duties varied, dealing with anything from radiation oncology to planetary meteorology. The job provided Johnson with the opportunity to work on a device that was part of the Viking Lander, which landed on Mars on July 20, 1976. The device, which had no moving parts, analyzed the chemistry of the soil on Mars.
“I’ve never particularly been interested in going to Switzerland or Italy or anywhere else,” he says. “I’ve never left the country, but I’m interested in extraterrestrial exploration to find other worlds and realities.”
During this time, he was able to meet astronauts such as Alan Bean, the fourth person to walk on the moon. Although Johnson considers his involvement with the Viking Lander as one of his most significant accomplishments, he became overwhelmed with his responsibilities in nuclear safety. Standing by the philosophy that one nuclear weapon is one too many, he became disgusted with the way his job started to revolve around the use of lasers and particle-beam weapons after Reagan’s implementation of Star Wars and the Strategic Defense Initiative, which put an end to funding planetary exploration and directed all money toward weapons programs.
“I was dealing heavily with the Pentagon at really high levels,” he says. “It was scary stuff, and I was deciding things nobody should decide.”
After leaving his job in nuclear safety, Johnson moved back to Sarasota in 1984 to escape the cold winters of Cleveland. Nowadays, the coin aficionado and part-time employee at World Coin & Jewelry Exchange in Sarasota carries out his passion for all things tiny with his one-man miniature coin company, which he started in 1980. The minicoins he creates are sold in gift shops throughout the country and feature various sarcastic sayings such as “Keep the Change” and “My Retirement Fund” printed on the packaging.
“I made little money because everyone else was trying to make big money,” says Johnson, who has been fascinated by all things miniature since he visited Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum in St. Augustine, Fla., as a child and was amazed when he saw the Lord’s Prayer engraved on the head of a pin. “I’m a minimalist.” JCU