When General Electric scientist Nick Holonyak Jr. began his research into light-emitting diodes in 1962, he could not have known that companies with global reach would be adopting his application within a few short decades. Starbucks, Target, and Walmart did not exist 50 years ago, of course. But more importantly, Holonyak was not intent on designing a revolutionary light source in 1962. He was aiming for the next by thyristor.
In the end, the then-33-year-old scientist got the laser component he wanted—and the lighting industry took an evolutionary leap as a result. Holonyak joined GE in 1957 as part of the team working on the very bleeding edge of laser technology, developing semiconductor applications as well as new components, research that would introduce the forerunners of today’s diodes. By 1962, Holonyak was focused on taking the laser from the infrared to the red—that is, to the visible portion of the spectrum. His work culminated in a semiconductor laser that used Gallium arsenide phosphide. The world’s first visible semiconductor alloy laser, realized on Oct. 9, 1962, simultaneously illuminated the world’s first LED.
“Nick Holonyak is a national treasure,” says GE Lighting Institute manager Mary Beth Gotti, in a release. “His curiosity and drive to explore and invent have inspired thousands of students and countless innovations. It’s breathtaking to consider the widespread and profound impact that Nick Holonyak brought to life 50 years ago.”
Fifty years later, Holonyak’s discovery of the LED has earned a visible and growing berth in the lighting market. Today, LEDs use 75 percent less energy than their incandescent lamp peers and they last up to three times longer than CFLs. Now 83, Holonyak has earned the right to bask in the glow of the invention that he calls the “ultimate lamp.”