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Engineering Professor Holonyak Honored on LED’s 50th Anniversary

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Nick Holonyak, Jr. is credited for inventing the LED light.

Nick Holonyak, Jr. is credited for inventing the LED light. (Brian Stauffer/ University of Illinois)

It is a year of honors for University of Illinois Engineering and Physics Professor Nick Holonyak Jr.

The inventor of the first practical light-emitting diode, or LED, addressed a crowd of students and faculty Tuesday on the 50th anniversary of that innovation. 

The 83-year old Holonyak took questions in front of more than 100 people at the U of I Illini Union south lounge Tuesday. The event could be seen as a warm-up for the LED 50th anniversary symposium, to be held October 24 & 25 in Champaign, featuring Holonyak and a number of Nobel Laureates.

Uses for the LED include instrument panels and bike tail lights, to lasers that run CD and DVD players. But Holonyak credits many, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist John Bardeen (1908-1991), for bringing him back to the U of I campus as his first Ph. D. student, and helping make these and other innovations possible. Holonyak sought to convince current students there is always more to be done.

“I go back almost to the beginning of a very primitive thing called the transistor,” he said. “And look what has happened? Enough to wipe out John (Bardeen), and wiping out me, and all that, and I see plenty for all of you to do. It’s not all in your head, it’s part of how willing you are to keep yourself going – not being too lazy physically or mentally.”

But Tuesday’s anniversary celebration wasn’t all about science. Holonyak was also asked to discuss what lured him to the U of I in the 1940’s from the Southern Illinois mining community of Zeigler, where his father worked in the mines.

“I didn’t know people lived this well,” he said. “I came from depression coal fields, and man, this was an unbelievable place. And I thought maybe those big boys from the military, who had done radar and everything else, would wipe me out. But I knew I had a good math background. So I thought I could compete with them, and I did.”

U of I Electrical and Computer Engineering Head Andreas Cangellaris said Bardeen has a very holistic approach about life, saying he’s realistic about expectations, but holds ambitious goals. He said Bardeen was a huge part of Holonyak’s life, and encourages others to find someone with that kind of influence.

“Nick would tell you that the way he thinks about it is every person in life needs a mentor,” Cangellaris said. “Sometimes you have to seek out and find that mentor, and that should be something we do throughout our lives.”

U of I Engineering Professor John Dallesasse was a student of Holonyak’s during the 1980’s.  

“He has a true excitement about science and technology – to this day,” he said. "He’s 83, turning 84 years old – it’s very hard for him to get around – yet every day, he comes into the building because he can talk to us about science, engineering, and technology because he just loves it.  And he basically fills all the people that he interacts with with that same level of excitement.”

Stefan Hiller is a U of I exchange student from Ecuador.

“Having so many people in the area of physics coming from the U of I is such an amazing feeling,” he said. “I learned we really have to work hard.  He didn’t know the LED was going to be such an amazing invention. He only worked on that, and some years after that, he realized that LED’s are everywhere, and inspires everyone to keep working on their own projects.”

Questions for Holonyak, who was inducted into the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame last year, ranged from 10-year-old Duncan Bruce, to a number of students, to longtime U of I faculty colleagues.

Documentary: "A Brilliant Idea: Nick Holonyak, Jr. and the LED"