Happy Birthday LED! LEDs Turn 50!

Nick Holonyak created the first visible-spectrum LED in 1962. Photo: Courtesy of Nick Holonyak/GE

50 years ago on October 9, 1962, GE scientist Dr. Nick Holonyak, Jr., invented the first practical visible-spectrum light-emitting diode (LED) while his colleagues were working on a laser using light in the invisible IR spectrum.  According to Holonyak, he was mystified that his colleagues were using invisible IR light. “If they can make a laser, I can make a better laser than any of them because I’ve made this alloy that is in the red-visible,” said Holonyak. “And I’m going to be able to see what’s going on. And they’re stuck in the infrared.”

GE scientist Dr. Robert N. Hall was working toward realizing a semiconductor laser in the infrared with GaAs (Gallium arsenide), Holonyak aimed for the visible with GaAsP (gallium arsenide phosphide). On October 9th, with GE colleagues looking on, Holonyak became the first person to operate a visible semiconductor alloy laser, the device that illuminated the first visible LED.

His colleagues at GE at the time dubbed the device ‘the magic one’ because its light, unlike infrared lasers, was visible to the human eye.  Holonyak was confident that he was onto something big.  In a GE interview, he remembers feeling that he was onto something big when ‘the magic one’ first lit up.  “I know that I’m just at the front end but I know the result is so powerful,” he said.  “There’s no ambiguity about the fact that this has got a life way beyond what we’re seeing.”

Today, LEDs can be used for a range of lighting and industrial applications from simple indicator lights to LED street lights, LED light bulbs for the home, office and commercial applications in retail including Home Depot, IKEA, Starbucks, Target, and Wal-mart, and even to regional grocery and convenience stores like Food City and Wawa.  LEDs also are used for display and backlighting in stadium TVs to consumer HDTVs and today’s smart phones and tablets like the iPad.

For Further Reading and Viewing

GE Video Interview, Nick Holonyak, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKkzBVNozjI

Solid State Technology, GE News Release, LED Inventor Nick Holonyak Reflects on Discovery 50 Years Later, http://www.electroiq.com/semiconductors/2012/10/10/led-inventor-nick-holonyak-reflects-on-discovery-50-years-later.html

LED 50th Anniversary Symposium,  http://www.led50years.illinois.edu/

Wired, How Lasers Inspired the Inventor of the LED, http://www.wired.com/design/2012/10/holonyak-laser-led-inventor/