ECE alumni inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame

4/29/2013 Gabrielle Irvin, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE alumni Donald Bitzer, Gene Slottow, and Robert Willson will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame on May 1 at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

Written by Gabrielle Irvin, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE alumni Donald Bitzer (BSEE ’55, MSEE ’56, PhD ’60), Gene Slottow (PhD ’64), and Robert Willson (PhD ’66) will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame  on May 1 at the United States Patent and Trademark Office headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Bitzer, Slottow, and Willson are being recognized for their invention of the flat-panel plasma display, the forerunner of high-definition (HD) flat-panel television monitor.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame honors legendary inventors whose innovations and entrepreneurial endeavors have positively impacted society. The induction ceremony is held to formally induct individuals who invented, patented, and advanced their inventions.

“I feel honored to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and having the plasma panel selected this year as one of the important patents,” Bitzer said. “I am particularly pleased for the honor since Invent Now, sponsor of the award, encourages creativity for our young students by implementing programs that develop creative thinking – an important necessity for the United States to maintain its scientific, engineering, and economic success.”

Donald L. Bitzer
Donald L. Bitzer

Bitzer, Slottow, and Willson invented the plasma display panel in 1964. The plasma panel was originally conceived as an interactive component of Bitzer’s invention, the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) educational network.

“Robert Willson was a graduate student of Gene Slottow’s and mine,” Bitzer said. “He was in the program from the beginning when all of the ideas were being developed. He developed the skills and techniques for building the original small panels from scratch. Later, there were wonderful graduate students who helped push the panel into new applications. One example of such a graduate student is Larry Weber. His research helped move the panel into the commercial television market.”

Bitzer holds other patents in the electronics field, including patents for an image selector and an audio device for the PLATO IV terminal. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers, and a fellow of the Association for Development of Computer-based Instructional Systems. He received the Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois in 1982. He retired from Illinois in 1989, and is currently teaching and researching at North Carolina State University.

“I was at the University of Illinois from 1951 through 1989,” Bitzer said. “The excellent professors and creative academic activities provided a basis for encouraging me to find new solutions to solve problems. The faculty, from Dean Everett to the head of ECE [Edward Jordan], and the wonderful professors in the classroom have had a lasting and very important impact on my career. I couldn't have chosen a better university.”

Willson received his BS in engineering physics in 1959 and received his MS in physics in 1961. He then enrolled in a circuit theory course that excited him so much that he switched majors, enrolled in ECE, and began an assistantship at the Coordinated Science Lab, helping Bitzer with the PLATO project.

“All the training I got at Illinois, especially in math, physics, and engineering was used over and over again,” Willson said. “Over my career there were at least four major fields that I had a chance to contribute to, and each had its roots at Illinois. I feel very fortunate and am very grateful for the education I received.”

Bitzer and Willson with their Emmy Award
Bitzer and Willson with their Emmy Award

In 1975, Willson worked as a fellow engineer in the Electro-Optics, Aerospace Division of Westinghouse Electric Corp in Baltimore, Maryland where he co-developed psychophysical thresholds for electro-optic systems. He worked as an advisory engineer in the Systems Development Division at Westinghouse/Northrop Grumman and performed motion compensation, system analysis and synthesis, and developed fast function evaluation techniques. Willson joined SYCOM Services, Inc., a subsidiary of Analex, as an advisory engineer, following his retirement from Northrop Grumman in 1997. He left SYCOM in 2002 and is enjoying retirement in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Willson is pleased that the efforts of his colleagues are being recognized. “I’m really excited that Don and Gene are being inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Willson said. “They pushed the plasma display development after I left Illinois. I’m really happy that they got the recognition they deserve. I was very fortunate to be part of this work. I was in the right place at the right time.”

Gene Slottow received an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Chicago, a master's degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a doctorate in electrical engineering from Illinois.

Professor Donald L. Bitzer
Professor Donald L. Bitzer

Slottow became an associate professor with ECE in 1968. In 1973, he received the Frances Rice Darne Memorial Award from the Society for Information Display for technical achievement, and in 1975 he was elected as a fellow to the Society for Information Display for his outstanding contributions to the advancement of display technology. In 1986, he was elected a fellow of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers and retired from the university. He passed away March 11, 1989.

“Professor Gene Slottow was wonderful to work with,” Bitzer said. “Not only was he an excellent researcher, but he was a prince of a person who found good in all people. He had just finished his PhD work when I approached him about working on creating a display that would be bright, flicker free, transparent, and have inherent memory. He joined the effort immediately and inviting him to work on the idea was one of the best decisions I have ever made. It is too bad that Gene did not live long enough to see the panel come into a major role as a television display.”

In recognition of their invention and its significance, Bitzer, Slottow, and Willson’s plasma display panel received the Industrial Research 100 Award in 1966. They received the Scientific and Technological Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2002, and were inducted into the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame in 2006.

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This story was published April 29, 2013.