Monday, 23 October 2017

Tell the World: The Mole Behind the TV

The 23rd October is celebrated by chemists as Mole Day – 23/10 reflects the 6x1023 atoms in one mole, the mass of an element equal to its own atomic weight.

In this blog we’ll be looking at chemistry in Hull, including one piece of research that helped create the modern digital world – the development of Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) at Hull University.

Liquid crystal research at Hull took off in the 1950s under the supervision of George William Gray and Brynmor Jones (future Vice-Chancellor and namesake for the university library). As head of the Liquid Crystal Research Group (LCRG), George W. Gray led the university’s pioneering research throughout the next 40 years. His 1962 book, Molecular Structure and Properties of Liquid Crystals was the first English-language book published on the subject.

Professor George Gray promoting liquid crystal technology, 9 Apr 19179 [U PHO/C4544]

Liquid crystals were of particular interest because of how they changed colour under an electric current, potentially leading to better electrical displays. The breakthrough came in 1973 when the team worked out how to synthesise crystals in the cyanobiphenyl group, liquid crystals that were stable at room temperature and could be used in electronic systems.

This breakthrough led to a whole new wave of electrical devices, from aircraft computers to pocket calculators, and eventually to modern LCD computer and television screens. There’s a good chance you’re reading this on an LCD screen right now!

Hull University continues George W. Gray’s research into visual technologies through the expanded Liquid Crystals and Photonics Group (LCPG).

Microscope footage of liquid crystals forming [U DLCR/11/10] 

Chemistry in Hull isn’t confined to the university labs. Many industrial chemical companies have set up factories in the city, taking advantages of Hull’s docks to import raw materials and export finished products.

Perhaps as many as ten paint manufacturers were active in the Hull during the 19th Century, of which the Sisson’s Brothers are probably the most well-known today. Thomas Sissons started as a whale oil merchant before opening a paint factory around 1803 – since good-quality paint was made from whale oil, this step was just cutting out the middle-man.

A more colourful side to Hull’s chemical past is found in along Morley Street in Stoneferry. One of the many business set up by local pharmaceutical giants J. Reckitt & Sons Ltd was a synthetic ultramarine factory, creating hundreds of tonnes of bright blue dye from 1884 onwards. After German dye imports were halted by the First World War, it became Britain’s biggest ultramarine manufacturer, a title which it held until its closure in 2007.

Industrial plants across Stoneferry, North Hull, C.1930s [C TDP/2/1/3]

More information about Hull’s chemical industries can be found in the Hull History Centre, starting with the Trade Directories from 1834 onwards.

The History Centre also holds the records of the Liquid Crystals Research Group (U DLCR), including some of the original lab equipment and test samples, as well as the Queens Award for Technology shield, awarded to the university in 1979.

Tom, TNA Digital Archives Trainee

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