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Now-Ubiquitous LED Lights Invented 50 Years Ago


They are ubiquitous. They're in our cars, our computers, our TVs and the remotes that control them. They light up our streets and, increasingly, our homes. I'm talking about Light Emitting Diodes, better known as LEDs. It was 50 years ago this week that they were invented.

NICK HOLONYAK: In a way, I knew right away from how powerful this result was that we were in the right direction.

SIEGEL: That is Nick Holonyak, Junior, the father of the LED. In 1962, Holonyak was working in General Electric's semiconductor lab. And he was working on an alloy to produce visible light. His colleagues were skeptical.

HOLONYAK: They're sophisticated and they got good methods and all that, and here comes this punk electrical engineer who's fooling around with some simple screwy kind of ideas. And they're swearing at me with their nice New York street language and I'm giving it back to them...


HOLONYAK: ...in coal miner's and then, of course, I can even switch a little bit to some other swears from other lands.

SIEGEL: Those first LEDs threw off red light. But Holonyak saw the potential.

HOLONYAK: I think we're going to make this into the ultimate white light source.

SIEGEL: Which strikes you more: the fact that now the LED is becoming a preferred source of lightning, or that it's taken almost half a century for the LED to bump off the incandescent light bulb?

HOLONYAK: Well, (unintelligible) like the bulbs because I think what you folks who report on science and so forth don't get right, is that real quickly things happen. It takes a long time to play around with an idea, make the mistakes you're going to make, and then get to what you really want.

SIEGEL: And at age 83, Nick Holonyak is still playing around and making mistakes. He's at the University of Illinois and he's working on a laser transistor.

HOLONYAK: We're not done. And any old man that says to a young guy, we did it all, is a liar or a fool. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.