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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 Prize.

“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 our world.”

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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 tools.

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 bulbs.

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 communications.

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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 since 1963.

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 continued successes.’”

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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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?


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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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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