The history of liquid crystals with the Kent Historical Society

Photo by Justin Jeffery

Kent Historical Society’s new exhibit centers on liquid crystal technology, a field of active contemporary research by anyone’s standard.

Though it may seem incongruous for a historical society to explore groundbreaking modern science, KHS’s leadership was immediately on board. To them, the present is just as important as the past.

“It’s not just about old stuff. It’s the present. It will be history,” president emeritus Sandy Halem said. “It’s just a matter of time, so we have to look at things that are making us important right now.”

Plus, liquid crystal technology, though cutting edge, is hardly new, said Hunter Morris, vice president of product strategy and marketing for Kent Displays, an LCD pioneer that helped the society create the exhibit. Mood rings, smart phones, calculators, digital cameras, digital watches, laptops and other flat-screen devices all use liquid crystals, which have properties of both liquids and solids.

“This is technology with a rich background that continues to push the boundaries of innovation today,” he said.

Kent Displays and AlphaMicron, both Kent companies which have gone global, were founded by students of J. William Doane, a former director of Kent State University’s world-renowned Liquid Crystal Institute. The LCI itself was founded in 1965 by Glenn H. Brown and for decades occupied a small brick building on North Lincoln Street.

Kent Displays, located on Portage Boulevard in Brimfield Township, just off Crystal Parkway, makes Boogie Boards, which are reusable writing tablets. The company produces a dozen related products, including JOTs for quick notes, Sketch Pals (marketed to children), Blackboards for serious note takers, and VersaNotes, VersaTiles, and VersaBoards.

Versa Notes, an alternative to sticky notes, are no thicker than a piece of paper and can be used endlessly, making them not only cutting edge, but also environmentally friendly, Morris said. Versa Tiles, a larger wall-mounted version of Versa Notes, can be used for any purpose.

Kent Displays CEO Asad Khan was also one of Doane’s students. Besides overseeing product research and development at Kent Displays, Khan maintains Kent Displays’ commitment to the community. He was recently named president of the Rotary Club of Kent and ensures the company’s ongoing partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, United Way, and area high schools, as well as donating products, funds and time to local communities.

Khan and his management team met with KHS staff multiple times to develop the exhibit, loaning items that will be on display for at least a year. Reviewing all the discoveries and innovations that have occurred through the years and looking forward to what may come in the future was exciting, he said.

“The discoveries coming out of Kent really put this sector of science on the map, so an exhibit at the Kent Historical Society is the perfect way to showcase the evolution of the category and Kent Display, Inc.’s role within it,” Khan said.

AlphaMicron, located on state Route 59 in Franklin Township, is an award-winning global leader in liquid crystal-based light reactive technologies, including goggles that instantaneously tint from clear to dark without intermittent bouts of critical data loss.

Originally developed for fighter pilots, the same technology was later applied to sunglasses, motorcycle helmet visors, and ski visors.

AlphaMicron continues to explore applying liquid crystal photonics to other industry sectors that need to solve light management challenges. A set of AlphaMicron’s goggles is part of the KHS exhibit, the bulk of which highlights Kent Displays’ innovations.

Visitors are invited to stop by the museum at 237 E. Main St. from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 1 during Kent’s Heritage Fest. Light refreshments will be available.

Halem, KHS Director Julie Kenworthy and exhibit curator Bengt George also look forward to hosting the city’s third graders, all of whom learn local history as a part of their standard curriculum. Perhaps, Kenworthy said, some of them will get excited about liquid crystal technology, realize they can study in their own hometown, and someday become innovators themselves.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.