An engineer, Heilmeier was once introduced at a technology conference as a man “with so much brainpower, he has to register it as excess baggage.” He went to work at RCA Laboratories in 1958 to do research for the company. He quickly rose through the ranks, and in 1964 discovered that liquid crystals had interesting electro-optical effects. By 1968 he and his team of researchers were demonstrating the effect to the public, predicting that displays made of the material may someday replace expensive, bulky, power-consuming cathode ray tubes, then used in most displays, including televisions. The Liquid Crystal Display, or LCD, and its offshoots have indeed now replaced CRTs. In the 1970s, Heilmeier worked for the government, rising to be the Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In 1977 he returned to the private sector, where he directed technology research at Texas Instruments, and led several other tech companies. Later, as an advisor to the Clinton administration, Heilmeier helped set priorities for the development of a new worldwide computer network — the Internet.
Over the years, he was best known for two things: inventing LCD displays, and for “Heilmeier’s Catechism” — a set of questions that anyone proposing a research project or product development effort should be able to answer:
- What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
- How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
- What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
- Who cares?
- If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
- What are the risks and the payoffs?
- How much will it cost?
- How long will it take?
- What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?
Heilmeier was awarded the David Sarnoff Award by the IEEE in 1976, the National Medal of Science in 1991, the IRI Medal from the Industrial Research Institute in 1993, the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1997, and the Kyoto Prize in advanced technology in 2005, among other honors. He died April 21 after a stroke. He was 77.