The inventor of the first visible-light LED says he finds it “insulting” that three scientists won a Nobel Prize for creating blue LEDs while he was overlooked.
Professors Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan and Professor Shuji Nakamura from the USA were yesterday announced as the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for their discovery, which enabled the creation of LED lights that emit white light and are far more efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs.
But this discovery would never have been possible without Professor Nick Holonyak’s 1962 invention of the first visible-light LED, the tiny red light that made fibre-optics networks, DVDs and a range of other technologies possible.
Holonyak always resisted suggestions from colleagues that he deserved the Nobel Prize for his invention, but speaking from his assisted-living home in Urbana, Illinois, the 85-year-old said the blue LED would never have happened without the work he and others undertook in the early 1960s.
"The LED as you know it today comes from us," he said, sitting next to his bed thumbing through a book, The Bright Stuff, written about him and his invention. "The blue LED? You cannot get to it, cannot (without that)."
As well as the ability to combine with green and red LEDs to create energy efficient white lights, Blue LEDs power many of the displays behind smartphones and computer and television screens.
The very first LED was an infrared LED, which was invented in 1961 at Texas Instruments by Bob Biard and Gary Pittman and the first commercial LED was the TI SNX-100 infrared LED, introduced in 1962.
Holonyak said he was not diminishing the work of the scientists who were honoured and knows Nakamura, but he believes the work on the blue LED cannot be separated from the original LED and he and the other people involved in that research. "I don't think it's fair to (them)," he said of early LED researchers.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences briefly referenced Holonyak's work in the scientific background issued with the prize, but made no reference to him not winning the award.
"Hell, I'm an old guy now," he added. "But I find this one insulting."
Delaina Amos, a University of Louisville professor who works with LEDs, said the blue LED was worthy of recognition, but believed Holonyak's invention also was. "I think there's no question that his work is very foundational, very deserving," she said.
Holonyak is the son of eastern European immigrants and grew up in the coal-mining town of Ziegler in southern Illinois, working on the railways before heading to the University of Illinois.
He has dozens of patents and has won a number of major awards – the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the National Medal of Technology, and the Medal of Honour and Edison Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
But he has no idea why, after all these years, his work on the LED has never merited the Nobel. "I can't answer that. I don't think they have an answer for that," he said.
A spokeswoman for the Royal Swedish Academy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.