Father Of The LED
Nick Holonyak, Jr. (born in Zeigler,
Illinois on November 3, 1928) invented the first visible LED in 1962
while working as a consulting scientist at a General Electric
Company laboratory in Syracuse, New York and has been called "the
father of the light-emitting diode".
He is a John Bardeen
Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics and
Professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University
of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he has been since 1993.
Holonyak's parents were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants who
settled in Southern Illinois; Holonyak's father worked in a coal
Holonyak was the first member of his family to receive any
type of formal schooling. He once worked 30 straight hours on the
Illinois Central Railroad before realizing that a life of hard labor
was not what he wanted and he'd prefer to go to school instead.
According to Knight Ridder, "The cheap and reliable semiconductor
lasers critical to DVD players, bar code readers and scores of other
devices owe their existence in some small way to the demanding
workload thrust upon Downstate railroad crews decades ago."
The Inventor Of The
Transistor's First Ph.D. Student
Holonyak was John
Bardeen's first Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign. He received his undergraduate, master's, and Ph.D.
(1954) from the same university. He created the first visible
semiconductor lasers in 1960.
In 1963, he again joined Dr.
Bardeen, the inventor of the transistor, at the University of
Illinois and worked on quantum wells and quantum-well lasers.
In addition to introducing the III-V alloy LED, Holonyak holds 41
patents. His other inventions include the red-light semiconductor
laser, usually called the laser diode (used in CD and DVD players
and cell phones) and the shorted emitter p-n-p-n switch (used in
light dimmers and power tools). He helped create the first light
dimmer while at GE.
Prediction Is Coming True
Holonyak predicted that his LEDs
would replace the incandescent light bulb of Thomas Edison in the
February 1963 issue of Reader's Digest, and as LEDs improve in
quality and efficiency they are gradually replacing incandescents as
the bulb of choice.
Out Of Five
the American Institute of Physics decided on the five most important
papers in each of its journals since it was founded 75 years ago.
Two of these five papers, in the journal Applied Physics Letters,
were co-authored by Holonyak. The first one, coauthored with S. F.
Bevacqua in 1962, announced the creation of the first visible-light
The second, co-authored primarily with Milton Feng in 2005,
announced the creation of a transistor laser that can operate at
Where Is He Now?
2007, he is the John Bardeen Endowed Chair Professor of Electrical
and Computer Engineering and Physics at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign and is investigating methods for manufacturing
quantum dot lasers.
He has been married to his wife Katherine
for 51 years. He no longer teaches classes, but he researches
full-time. He and Dr. Milton Feng run a transistor laser research
center at the University funded by $6.5 million from the United
States Department of Defense through DARPA.
10 of his 60 former
doctoral students develop new uses for LED technology at Philips
Lumileds Lighting Company in Silicon Valley.
been presented awards by George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Emperor
Akihito of Japan and Vladimir Putin.
In 1989, Holonyak
received the IEEE Edison Medal for 'an outstanding career in the
field of electrical engineering with contributions to major advances
in the field of semiconductor materials and devices.'
former student, Russell Dupuis from the Georgia Institute of
Technology, won this same award in 2007.
In 1995, he was
awarded the $500,000 Japan Prize for 'Outstanding contributions to
research and practical applications of light emitting diodes and
In 2003, he was awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor. He
has also received the Global Energy International Prize, the
National Medal of Technology, the Order of Lincoln Medallion, and
the 2004 Lemelson-MIT Prize, also worth $500,000.
He has also
received the Frederic Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America.
Many colleagues have expressed their belief that he deserves the
Nobel Prize for his invention of the LED. On this subject, Holonyak
says, "It's ridiculous to think that somebody owes you something.
We're lucky to be alive, when it comes down to it."
A Historical Marker In His Honor.
On 9 November 2007, Holonyak was
honored on the University of Illinois campus with a historical
marker recognizing his development of the quantum-well laser.
Colleagues, friends, and students gathered at a reception to
celebrate Holonyak at the unveiling of the historical marker,
located just north of Everitt Lab at the site of the old Electrical
Engineering Research Laboratory (EERL) on the Bardeen Quadrangle.
Among the attendees was University of Illinois President B. Joseph
White. Speaking to the gathering, he related the story of his first
encounter with Holonyak after being appointed president three years
ago. He said he did not know of Holonyak when they met during a
chance encounter. White asked him to tell him about himself. In
explanation, Holonyak simply replied, "Well, I’m pretty famous
around here." "I immediately went to my office, I did my homework,
and only then did I realize that perhaps only could Nick say that
and have it be a modest statement," said White. "And it actually
That was my occasion to learn about a man who is a great
inventor, whose life story is absolutely astounding, a man who has
changed, and is changing, the world. A man who has educated so many
people coming behind him."
At age 79, Holonyak had
accomplished much in his lifetime. He returned to Illinois as a
faculty member in 1963, and with his students in 1977, demonstrated
the first quantum-well laser. The development allowed for fiber
optic communications, CD players, and advances in the field of
At the reception, ECE Department Head Richard
Blahut presented Holonyak with a brick from the old EERL building.
The inscription on the brick read, "The foundation you’ve laid
through your work and through the people you’ve touched, both at the
University of Illinois and far beyond, will support new innovations,
new discoveries, and the education of new engineers for many years
Blahut himself shared his personal connection to
Holonyak and his work.
"When I was a boy...I learned about the
great engineers of the world," Blahut announced. "I learned about
Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, Samuel F.B. Morse,
Guglielmo Marconi, and many others. And I regretted the fact that at
my young age, I knew that in my lifetime I would never meet one of
these great people. It never occurred to me that I would, in fact,
meet someone at the level of these men--Nick Holonyak. I have met a
man of the equal of my childhood heroes, and so I can die happily,"
Holonyak said it is important to appreciate those
who think outside the box and stretch the limits of what they know
to be true.
"When I came here, I didn’t realize that I had come
to a place where you learn to learn," he said. "You’re going to run
into the kind of mind that is on the boundary of looking for
something more. I think you must always look for those kinds of
people. No place is going to be worth much if it doesn’t have the
people who know how to go to the boundary and find what there is
further. We have to learn to be able to cope with what there is
ahead. I hope, more than anything else, that the U of I flourishes
because it is a special place. It’s where young people can get
Illinois Provost Linda Katehi, also an ECE
professor, said Holonyak is known for the quality and uniqueness of
his research, as well as its widespread appeal and impact in the
commercial sector and products people use on a daily basis.
work that...Nick has done, for electrical engineering and for
science and for physics, is amazing," said Katehi. "Nick’s name has
been really very well known among all of us who have done work in
the area [of electrical engineering], in his immediate area, or in
other connected areas," she continued. "Something else unique about
Nick is the intensity with which he produces new ideas, and his
intensity as an individual in terms of the discipline he brings to
the thought, and the discipline he brings to the work with his
Ilesamni Adesida, ECE professor and College of
Engineering dean, marveled at Holonyak’s excellence in his research
"The number of students--great students--who are now great
scientists or entrepreneurs in the field--whether it is LED,
transistors, or lasers--just trace it. Everything goes back to
Nick," he said. "So that’s the [evidence of the] pervasiveness of
his influence in this field. The work that Nick has done has defined
the field, and I’m sure it will define it for succeeding
In 2008, he was inducted into the National
Inventors Hall of Fame (Announced February 14, 2008) (May 2-3, 2008
at Akron, Ohio).
“Nick Holonyak’s inventions, like all great
works of scientific inspiration, have changed our world,” said
Richard Herman, the chancellor of the Urbana campus. “Think, for a
moment, of the impact of LEDs. Today, they are ubiquitous, in games,
household products, medical equipment, automobiles and countless
other applications. Honoring Nick Holonyak’s inventions is yet one
more recognition of the extraordinary significance of his work.”
On a personal note, Nick is truly an inspiration. I'm sure a
countless group of others would have accomplished what he has
eventually, but to do all the great things he has done in his 55
years in the field of electronics is amazing.
Thank you Nick!