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Greenlight Optics
The Man Behind the Light-Emitting Diode
Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sure, at the tail end of 2015 you can purchase light-emitting diode (LED) “bulbs” at just about any home improvement store. With their countless benefits and improvements on incandescent bulbs (using up to 75 percent less energy than traditional bulbs; they contain zero traces of mercury; they have a lifespan of decades; etc.) it’s no surprise that LEDs are becoming the light of choice in homes, businesses, and custom designs. However, light-emitting diodes would be nowhere near as prevalent as they are today without the man who invented one form of LEDs, Nick Holonyak Jr.

In honor of Holonyak’s 87th birthday this month, rather than re-hashing a blurb about the inner workings of LEDs, this post is dedicated to the man himself. However, to be straightforward, Nick Holonyak Jr. didn’t invent every color of LEDs or discover every working technology. Holonyak is the inventor of the first visible spectrum light-emitting diode. His invention emitted a red light instead of infrared light. Though the first reported creation of LEDs goes to Russian inventor Oleg Losev in 1927, Holonyak is considered the father of the visible light-emitting diode.

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Blue, pure green, and red LEDs in 5-millimeter diffused cases. (Photo: Lokal Profil)

A year after Losev’s LED discovery, Nick Holonyak Jr. was born in 1928. A child of immigrants, it may not be too surprising to learn that Holonyak was the first member of his family to receive any type of formal schooling. And it was education that led Holonyak down the path of becoming an electrical engineer. See, before he would invent the first visible spectrum LED, Nick Holonyak Jr. went to the University of Illinois, where, in 1950 he received his bachelor’s degree and in 1951 he received his master’s degree — both in electrical engineering, of course.

After receiving his master’s degree, Holonyak continued his education; he was the first graduate student of John Bardeen, whom is known for inventing the transistor. During his time as a student of Bardeen’s, Nick Holonyak Jr. was educated on several subjects relating to electrical engineering, including solid-state physics. When receiving his Ph.D. (in none other than electrical engineering) in 1954, Holonyak immediately went to work for Bell Laboratories where he got his start creating electrical inventions.

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Nick Holonyak Jr. poses with a red LED — the type he invented — in this 2002 photo. (Photo: AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Tom Roberts)

It was almost a decade later in 1962 when Holonyak was working at General Electric Co. that he created the first visible spectrum light-emitting diode. While it was known that light-emitting diodes do exist, what made Holonyak’s discovery so noteworthy was his decision to use III-V semiconducting alloys to alter the semiconductor range. Nick Holonyak Jr. used gallium arsenide and gallium arsenide phosphide to have the properties work in his favor. Thus, the red LED was born.

After the birth of his invention, Holonyak then returned to the University of Illinois in 1963 as a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Still researching at Illinois 52 years later, Nick Holonyak Jr. has written and co-authored more than 500 papers and he holds more than 40 patents. While in 2014 Holonyak was overlooked for a Nobel Prize in Physics (the winners were actually the inventors of the blue light-emitting diode), he is now a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois where he was honored at the 2015 commencement.


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