On the Origin of Bendy Phones

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An OLED prototype embedded in flexible plastic. OLEDs have opened up a new field of thin and flexible electronic appliances, including bendy cell phones. Credit: meharris (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m sure I was not the only person relieved to see November headlines with news of bendy cell phones set to hit shelves sometime in 2013. Now, with fewer consequences than ever, I will be free to drop my phone, step on it, fold it into my back pocket, all without breaking its screen. This is good news. I want to thank the person responsible for this technology.

So, who is responsible for this futuristic solution to shattered screens? Can I trace this back to a single source, and send a thanks?

In fact, I think I can. The heart of this advancement lies in Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs), the light source of these new phones. Unlike conventional LED and LCD screens that require a rigid backlight to glow, OLEDs are inherently flexible and generate their own light once energized by an electrical current. Without the confines of a backlight, OLEDs can fit into bendy materials and fold at our convenience.

In searching for whoever might be responsible for discovering this light, I hone in on the origin of OLEDs. I find myself back in 1963, with a person I actually know personally: my Great Uncle, Martin Pope, who discovered the physics behind OLEDs in his laboratory at New York University when he was 45 years old. He co-authored a paper on it the next year in the Journal of Chemical Physics. He is now 95 years old, lives in the same Brooklyn house he lived in during the time of his discovery, and still makes weekly visits to his office at NYU.

Working in a windowless laboratory that allowed him to see the luminescence, Martin discovered that a particular crystal, called anthracene, emits light when exposed to electrical currents under certain conditions. Anthracene is an organic crystal — the O in the OLED — because it contains carbon, not because of anything involving pesticides or farmers markets. Such organic crystals now form the basis of OLED technology.

Martin was trying to prove something else completely, something technical about the electrons within anthracene crystals, when he proved that they could glow.

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Dr. Martin Pope, in his lab at NYU in 1988. Pope still visits his lab regularly today, at the age of 95. Credit: provided by Martin Pope

“I felt good when I made this discovery, but for a completely different reason than the discovery of electroluminescence in organic crystals. I had something else in mind,” he told me recently.

That ‘something else’ ended up opening a whole new field of physics based on these organic semiconductors that are now used widely in many printers, xerox machines, TVs, and, of course, cell phones.

But Martin was not considering any particular practical application of his findings during his experiments. He says he was driven entirely by an “obsessive” curiosity, and admits that he would probably be a billionaire now if he had had the foresight or inclination to patent his findings.

And, proud as he may be of these products, Martin still does not have much of a plan to indulge in them.

“I would love to see a bendy OLED phone,” he told me, “but there would be no reason for me to own one.” He does, indeed, own a cell phone. So I guess he was implying that, not only is he skilled with electrons, but he also does not drop his cell phone. A wizard, of sorts.

I don’t often think of the people responsible for the technologies we enjoy daily. I certainly don’t think of Thomas Edison every time I turn a light switch, nor do I consider George Washington Carver every time I eat peanut butter. But, when I purchase my first bendy phone, and I drop it, and it doesn’t break, I will feel lucky to know that I can offer a very warm personal thanks to my Great (and I do mean great) Uncle who made this possible.

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