INVENTOR OF LONG-LASTING, LOW-HEAT LIGHT
AWARDED $500,000 LEMELSON-MIT PRIZE FOR INVENTION
Nick Holonyak Jr. Invented the
First Practical Light-Emitting Diode (LED)
WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 21, 2004) — Nick Holonyak
Jr. had one of those bright ideas that lit up the world. In 1962,
he invented the first practical red light-emitting diode (LED).
Today, LEDs illuminate everything from alarm clocks to the NASDAQ
billboard in New York’s Times Square.
This Friday, during the 10th annual Lemelson-MIT Awards Ceremony,
Holonyak will receive the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize— the
world’s largest single cash prize for invention.
Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which sponsors
the annual award, cited the scope of Holonyak’s work, as well
as his impact on future generations of inventors, as important reasons
the Prize board chose him to receive this year’s Lemelson-MIT
“Nick Holonyak’s work is present in many of the electronic
devices we use today,” Flemings said. “Within the next
decade, LEDs could potentially make the incandescent light bulb
obsolete. Equally important, Nick Holonyak has mentored countless
students who have pursued science and technology as a means to improve
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LET THERE BE LIGHT – FROM A CHIP
Holonyak was the first student of John Bardeen, one of the inventors
of the transistor, while at the University of Illinois in the early
1950s. After finishing graduate school in 1954, Holonyak took a
job with Bell Labs and was part of a team whose original work led
to the invention of the integrated circuit. Later, while at General
Electric, Holonyak invented the shorted emitter p-n-p-n switch,
which is now widely used in household dimmer switches and power
In the late 1950s, Holonyak learned about research on how semiconductors
could generate infrared light. Light in the infrared spectrum is
invisible to the human eye; Holonyak believed the technology could
have a greater impact if people could actually see the results.
“I deliberately wanted to be out of the infrared and in
the visible spectrum where I could see what I was doing,”
Holonyak said. “I knew I could make the materials and junctions
that would emit red light.”
“Once I created a red light-emitting diode, I was constantly
thinking, ‘Why can’t I create an orange, green and blue
one,’” he said.
Light-emitting diodes produce more lumens per watt (the measurement
of light) than both incandescent and halogen lighting sources, making
them more environmentally friendly and cost effective in the long
run. LEDs last an average of ten times longer than incandescent
Since Holonyak’s first development of the LED in 1962, scientist
and engineers continue to expand its capabilities and applications.
The electronics and automotive industries, in particular, have found
many practical uses for LEDs. The LED’s long life span makes
it ideal for use in automotive dashboards and taillights, traffic
signals and consumer electronics displays.
Holonyak has continued to make advances using semiconductor lasers.
He demonstrated, with Ed Rezek, the first quantum well semiconductor
laser, which is instrumental in fiber optic communications. He also
introduced impurity induced layer disordering (IILD), which led
to more reliable lasers now used in DVD players and CD-RAM drives.
Holonyak continues to refine and improve his original invention
and pursue new applications for the technology. His current research
with colleague Milton Feng is in light-emitting transistors. Though
still in the early stages of development, light-emitting transistors
could dramatically improve the speed and availability of electronic
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ILLUMINATING YOUNG MINDS
Today, Holonyak is the John Bardeen Professor of Electrical and
Computer Engineering and Physics at the University of Illinois,
a professorship sponsored by Sony. He has taught at his alma mater
Over the decades, Holonyak has shared his passion for exploring
and inventing with his students. It is this passion that kept him
in the lab late at night. He views invention as a game of science
and technology and encourages his students to look at it similarly.
“I learned pretty early in life that you don’t have
to learn everything to be able to do something. With inventing,
you are attempting to solve a problem within your reach, not trying
to resolve the world’s greatest problems,” he said.
“I tell my students, ‘you only have to succeed once,
and then you will have the confidence and a basis of knowledge for
During his 41-year tenure as a professor, Holoynak has mentored
more than 60 doctoral candidates. Many of these former students
have formed technology companies of their own or joined industry
leaders such as General Electric, Xerox, JDS Uniphase, Hewlett-Packard,
LumiLeds and Monsanto. Many of them have also continued to improve
the LED and find new practical applications for it.
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NURTURING INVENTION IN AMERICA
This year’s Lemelson-MIT Awards Ceremony will take place
at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. It is the
capstone of the Lemelson-MIT Program’s first-ever Invention
Assembly, a gathering of professional inventors and academics who
will discuss ways and recommend policies to preserve an inventive
culture in the United States.
While he is in Washington, D.C. this week, Holonyak will be one
of several inventors to address the D.C. Science Writers Association
on April 22 about invention—where does it come from, who does
it, how do they think and learn?
ABOUT THE $500,000 LEMELSON-MIT PRIZE
The $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the world’s largest single
cash prize for invention, is awarded to an individual who demonstrates
remarkable inventiveness and creativity, and a proven commitment
to inspiring others. A distinguished panel of scientists, technologists,
engineers and entrepreneurs selects the winner.
The most recent winners of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize include
Leroy Hood, whose DNA sequencer made possible the Human Genome Project;
Dean Kamen, most popularly known for the Segway™ Human Transporter;
and Raymond Kurzweil, who invented the first musical synthesizer
and the first reading machine for the blind.
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ABOUT THE LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the Lemelson-MIT Program
aims to raise the stature of inventors and provide resources and
inspiration to make invention and innovation more accessible to
today’s youth. It accomplishes this mission through outreach
activities and annual awards, including the world’s largest
prize for invention—the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.
Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the world’s most prolific inventors,
and his wife, Dorothy, founded the Lemelson-MIT Program in 1994
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is funded by The
Lemelson Foundation, a private philanthropy committed to honoring
the contributions of inventors, innovators and entrepreneurs, and
to inspiring ingenuity in others. More information on the Lemelson-MIT
Program is online at http://web.mit.edu/invent.
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