Fishermen have been using depth finders based on sonar for decades. In 1984 Humminbird, a tiny company in Eufaula, Ala., introduced a model that was the first to incorporate a microprocessor and first to use a liquid crystal display (LCD) screen. The combination, which Humminbird called LCR, for “liquid crystal recorder,” propelled the company to market dominance and kicked off the modern era of high-tech fishing.
In many countries, sport fishing ranks among the most common leisure activities. A few years back the American Sportfishing Association estimated that over 60 million Americans had gone fishing at one time or another. Ernest Hemingway, Zane Grey, Richard Brautigan, Thomas McGuane, and Negley Farson are a few among many who have described fishing in language ordinarily reserved for religious experiences; the late author Norman McLean wrote that fishing and religion were essentially the same thing. The upshot here is that fishermen tend to take the endeavor seriously. Technology that makes sportfishing easier is regarded with something close to reverence.
Through the 1960s, sport fishermen began using depth finders more frequently, some of them assembling their own devices from kits sold by Heathkit. Humminbird traces its roots to a small group including Tom Mann, a fishing entrepreneur. In 1971 he joined forces with an unidentified hospital radiologist and began modifying Heathkit depth sounders (for example, shielding them from interference) and rebranding them with the Humminbird name. The company soon began building its own depth finders, and in 1975 it brought out its Super Sixty, the first waterproof model on the market. The Super Sixty put the company on the map, so to speak. It was popular—though nothing like the LCR Fish Finder, introduced in 1984.
As a category, fish finders at the time had been getting complicated. There was some feature bloat, to be sure, but the bigger problem was button bloat. It was just too hard to figure out what to press to do anything. The displays were getting complex, too. Manufacturers kept adding more alphanumeric information to each display, making it harder to figure out the data at a glance. Worse, displays at the time were hard to see in sunlight—no small problem, as fishing is usually done outdoors and during the day.
So when Jim Balkcom, Humminbird CEO at the time, was deciding what he wanted in the company’s next product, that’s what he focused on: a product that users could easily read in daylight.
The company’s engineers chose what the LCR’s manual called a “supertwist” LCD, almost certainly a reference to the supertwisted nematic display, a type of monochrome LCD, which had just been invented by Brown Boveri in 1983. Such LCDs were considered superior at the time to other LCDs.
But if Humminbird was going to have a great new display, wouldn’t it be beneficial to have a new feature to show it off? Company engineers decided to use microprocessors to analyze the sonar signals and display graphic images of sonar cross sections of the seascape below the boat.
The LCR showed the contour of the bottom in a side view. Anything large that was floating free above it, which in most cases would be a fish, was displayed in the shape of a fish—quite pixelated, but a fish shape nonetheless. The device had resolution high enough to identify objects floating 6 inches off the bottom, or 6 inches from each other.
Responding to fishermen’s complaints that fish finders were getting too complicated, the company gave the LCR only two buttons. “One button turned it on and off and the other sequenced through features. It was that simple. And it took off like a rocket ship. We went from $6 million to $75 million in revenues within three years and grew from 0% to 48% market share, revolutionizing the industry,” Balkcom told the bass-fishing publication Bassmaster a few years later. The two-button claim was somewhat hyperbolic, in that the Humminbird LCR 1000 had a total of four. There was one each for on and off; a third button illuminated the screen. To Balkcom's point, however, there was indeed a single button for navigating the device's features.
Humminbird’s next model, the LCR4 ID, would add color to the LCD display (that display was sourced from Hitachi, according to Balkcom). The bottom was displayed in black, and anything likely to be a fish was displayed in red. Humminbird sold them so fast that it literally had no inventory or a year and half; it would ship a unit the moment it was built. The company, which was bought by Johnson Outdoors Inc. in 2004, has continued to innovate. It claims to have built the first 3D and side-imaging sonars for helping sport fishermen find fish. Humminbird also touts its pioneering work integrating GPS data into its units, and the first model with 360-degree imaging, introduced in 2012.