URBANA – University of Illinois researcher Nick Holonyak Jr. said he took it as a challenge when some chemists at General Electric criticized his approach to making lasers during a strongly worded conversation in 1962.
“They were telling me I was nuts in pretty foul language – New York language – and I was giving it back in language from the coal fields of southern Illinois,” Holonyak told The (Champaign) News-Gazette.
Holonyak proved his critics wrong when he found a new alloy that would emit light in the red part of the visible spectrum and created the first practical light-emitting diode, or LED.
Now, Holonyak will be honored at the University of Illinois today to mark the 50th anniversary of his discovery, which has led to a host of developments from digital clocks to the lasers that make CD players possible to fiber-optic communication networks.
The celebration at the Illini Union will include enough cake for 500 people, a separate cake with LED candles and a talk by Holonyak, who holds the John Bardeen Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics.
The university also has planned a symposium for Oct. 24 and 25 that will bring together Nobel laureates to discuss Holonyak’s work.
“Our lives today are marked by everything he has contributed,” said professor Andreas Cangellaris, head of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
“Sometimes people don’t even have a clue that many of the great things that they are enjoying go back to Nick’s thinking about how do you make wild things happen.”
Holonyak was born in Franklin County in southern Illinois to eastern European immigrant parents and grew up in Glen Carbon.
His father was a coal miner who wanted his son to get an education.
Holonyak went to work on the Illinois Central railroad when he was 15 to save enough money to attend the University of Illinois, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees.
He worked at Bell Labs, in an Army signal intelligence unit in Japan and at GE, before returning to the university as a researcher.
Holonyak calls the LED the “ultimate lamp,” but he isn’t done inventing. His latest work with U of I professor Milton Feng is focused on a high-speed transistor laser, which they invented in 2003.
Scientists say the technology could lead to advances, such as an all-optic smartphone with better speed and bandwidth.
“Everything he thinks about, in every discussion you engage him, he always pushes himself to think out of the box,” Cangellaris said. “When you think of an innovator, the very creative people, for them coming up with new ideas is a way of life. I think he personifies that in a way that I have not seen in anybody around me in my entire life.”