CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — Nick Holonyak Jr., a noted lighting innovator, died September 18 in Urbana, Illinois. The University of Illinois Urbana Champaign professor was 93 years old.
Holonyak (pronounced huh-LON-yak) is credited with developing the first practical LED in the visible spectrum, used in light bulbs, appliance displays, and lasers worldwide today.
As one of the first researchers in the field of semiconductor materials and a pioneer in the field of optoelectronics — devices that convert electricity into light or vice versa — Holonyak also contributed to technologies in household dimmer switches, lasers that power CD and DVD players, and fiber optics Communication lines at , and other electronic and communication equipment. Two Presidents have recognized Holonyak with national medals—George W. Bush, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2002, and George HW Bush, the National Medal of Science in 1990, for “his contributions as one of the nation’s most prolific inventors in this field of semiconductor materials and devices.”
Holonyak was born on November 3, 1928 in Zeigler, Illinois. The son of an immigrant miner, he worked on the Illinois Central Railroad before becoming the first in his family to seek higher education. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in Illinois. He then worked for Bell Labs, the US Army Signal Corps, and General Electric before joining the U. of I. faculty in 1963.
On October 9, 1962, while working at General Electric, Holonyak demonstrated the first visible light-emitting diode. While infrared LEDs were previously made from the material gallium arsenide, Holonyak created crystals from gallium arsenide phosphide to create an LED that emits a visible red light.
“It’s good that I was an engineer and not a chemist. When I showed them my LED, all the chemists at GE said, “You can’t do that. If you were a chemist, you would know that wouldn’t work.” I said, ‘Well, I just did it and lo and behold, it works!’” Holonyak said in a 2012 interview.
At the U. of I., Holonyak held the John Bardeen Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics. Holonyak was Bardeen’s first graduate student, receiving his PhD from Illinois in 1954, and worked closely with Bardeen, a two-time Nobel Prize winner, on fiber optics, CD and DVD players, and medical diagnostic equipment until Bardeen’s death in 1991.
Recently, Holonyak developed a technique to bend light inside gallium arsenide chips, a development that allows computer chips to transmit information through light instead of electricity. Along with his Illinois colleague Milton Feng, Holonyak also developed the transistor laser, a transistor with both light and electrical output that could enable next-generation high-speed communications technologies.
“We have lost a legendary member of our Illinois family who inspired literally everyone to see the world in a new and better way,” said Chancellor Robert J. Jones.
In addition to his research, Holonyak was known for his excellent mentoring and dedication to his students. Many of his former students went on to make their own pioneering contributions to the field of optoelectronics.
Holonyak is survived by his wife Katherine, to whom he was married for more than 60 years.
His numerous awards include the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (2021), the Draper Prize from the National Academy of Engineering (2015), the Lemelson-MIT Prize (2004), the Global Energy Prize from Russia (2003), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor (2003), the Japan Prize (1995), the National Academy of Sciences’ Award for the Industrial Application of Science (1993), and the Optical Society’s Charles Hard Townes Award (1992).
Holonyak was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the International Electrical and Electronic Engineering Society, the American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America, and abroad Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.