The background physics behind the LED discovery had been known at least since 1907, when H.J. Round, an English wireless expert working as an engineer for the Marconi Wireless and Telegraph Co. in New Jersey, discovered electroluminescence in a solid-state diode — light that was not visible to the human eye, only via instruments.
Dr. Holonyak was working General Electric’s Advanced Semiconductor Laboratory in Syracuse, N.Y., when a chemist colleague was working toward realizing a semiconductor laser that used invisible infrared light. Out of competitive drive, Dr. Holonyak recalled thinking, “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. And I’m going to be able to see what’s going on. And they’re stuck in the infrared.”
When Dr. Holonyak developed a light-emitting diode — a semiconductor light source that emits light when an electric current flows through it — he was literally showing the world in a whole new light. It shone an intense red, thanks to the gallium arsenide phosphide crystals that he used in the diode.
“It’s a good thing I was an engineer and not a chemist,” he said in a 2012 GE interview. “When I went to show them my LED, all the chemists at GE said, ‘You can’t do that. If you were a chemist, you’d know that wouldn’t work.’ I said, ‘Well, I just did it, and see, it works!’ ”
Colleagues called it “the Magic One.”
Nevertheless, it took several more decades and contributions from multiple researchers for the technology to become more reliable for everyday commercial use, not only in homes and businesses, but also by municipalities to light streets and signs.
Experts say LEDs use up to 75 percent less energy than incandescent sources and last up to 25 times longer than incandescent and halogen light sources. His work is now used in airport runway lights, aircraft cabins and miners’ helmet lamps, an issue close to his heart as the son of an immigrant Ukrainian coal miner.
More recently, Dr. Holonyak helped create a technique to bend light within gallium arsenide chips, a development allowing computer chips to transmit information by light rather than electricity. He also helped develop, along with fellow Illinois professor Milton Cheng, the transistor laser, using light and electric outputs that could enhance next-generation high-speed communications technologies.
It is estimated that LEDs can save $30 billion a year in energy costs in the United States alone, reduce the need for conventional coal-and-gas-fired power plants, and cut carbon emissions by tens of metric tons a year. And unlike neon products, they contain no mercury and are therefore more environmentally friendly.
“Nick Holonyak is a national treasure,” Mary Beth Gotti, manager of the GE Lighting & Electrical Institute at Nela Park in East Cleveland, said in a GE account. “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 of ‘the magic one’ that Nick Holonyak brought to life 50 years ago.”
Nikola Holonyak was born in Zeigler, Ill., on Nov. 3, 1928, and grew up in Glen Carbon, Ill. His father had emigrated almost two decades earlier from a poverty-stricken coal mining area of Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains.
“He arrived by boat in Baltimore, with $2 in his pocket,” Dr. Holonyak told the Big Ten TV news network in 2011, “and started walking to Pennsylvania because he knew there were coal miners there. All he knew [in English] was ‘Mr. Boss, give me a job.’ Miners were paid 38 cents per ton of coal mined. Most men in town were coal miners, so I understand broken Slavic almost perfectly.”
His father survived the 1914 mine explosion at Royalton, Ill., that killed 52 miners by crawling through an air shaft to safety and later told his son not to work in the mines. The younger Holonyak worked first on the Illinois Central Railroad as a “gandy dancer” — laying down railway ties 10 hours a day, six days a week for 65 cents an hour — before saying to himself “the hell with this.”
He became the first in his family to pursue higher education, receiving his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees (the last in 1954) at the University of Illinois. He then worked for Bell Labs, the Army Signal Corps and General Electric before joining the University of Illinois faculty in 1963, recruited back by his graduate school mentor John Bardeen, a two-time Nobel laureate in physics. (At Illinois, Dr. Holonyak held the Bardeen chair in electrical and computer engineering and physics.)
In 1955, he married the former Katherine “Kay” Jerger. She is his only immediate survivor.
President George H.W. Bush awarded Dr. Holonyak the National Medal of Science in 1990 for “his contributions as one of the Nation’s most prolific inventors in the area of semiconductor materials and devices.” President George W. Bush later bestowed on him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2002 and Queen Elizabeth of England presented him with the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering in 2021.
He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society and the Optical Society of America, among other organizations. Dr. Holonyak also became known to his students for his physical fitness, challenging them to numbers of push-ups or how far they could walk on their hands across the university’s gym. He rarely lost.
“Nick was known for not only his discipline and hard work but also his willingness to talk and engage with colleagues and students, and share stories of his past,” Rashid Bashir, dean of the University of Illinois’s Grainger College of Engineering, wrote in an email. “He was provided a nice independent office, but he preferred to be in the lab around students and where the research was happening. He used to exercise regularly in Kenny’s gym on campus at UIUC and was known to challenge others to run, do handstands, etc. etc. He was dedicated to making the world a better place by learning, teaching and doing research.”
In the Big Ten TV program of 2011, Don Scifres, a student at Illinois who studied under Dr. Holonyak and got his PhD in 1972, said: “He said life is about improving the world, and people who don’t have that as a goal, I don’t know what they live for.”