Nick Holonyak, Inventor of the LED

LED lighting has come a long way since its invention in 1962. With changes in the law combined with the desire to reduce energy consumption, there’s been a pressing demand for an effective replacement for the traditional incandescent light bulb. Fortunately, the LED lamp has served this purpose. But where did it start? A quick look at its origins will provide a bit of enlightenment for everyone!

The most surprising thing about the invention of the LED is that it’s a case of serendipity. The light’s creator, Nick Holonyak, Jr., set out to build a semiconductor-based laser. The ability to produce light by passing electricity through particular types of semiconductors was discovered around the start of the 20th century. Building on this knowledge, other researchers at Holonyak’s employer, GE, set about to create an infrared laser. Holonyak was an exploratory scientist whose job was to invent entirely new gadgetry no one had seen before. When he heard of this work, he was determined to beat them to the punch by fabricating his own semiconductor laser that generated visible light in the red part of the spectrum. The 33-year-old Holonyak lost the race but did win a place in history. In that year, 1962, he created the first usable LED light.


Constructing the light with a diode as the platform, Holonyak used gallium arsenide phosphide or GaAsP as the semiconducting agent. This chemical, produced by Monsanto, supplied the visible red light when stimulated. His co-workers were impressed by his accomplishment and an anonymous employee of the company dubbed it “The Magic One” and wrote that moniker on the back of the original light. By 1963, GE put the first LED lights on the market at $260 a piece. Two years after their creation, LEDs started showing up in electrical devices. Through alterations in the chemicals used, a green one was created a few years later. In a decade’s time, a former student of Holonyak’s invented a yellow light. As prices fell in the next decade, they made their way to digital watches. By 1990, they were being used as traffic and automotive lights. Holonyak always suspected his creation could overtake incandescent bulbs. He’s a bit disappointed it’s taken this long but is happy to see it finally happen.

Watch the video below to learn more about Holoynak and his invention.

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