Who was Nick Holonyak Jr.?
Born in 1928 to Rusyn immigrants (from what is now Ukraine), Nick Holonyak Jr. was the first member of his family to receive any type of formal schooling. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1950, his master’s degree in 1951, and his doctoral degree in 1954. All were in electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Holonyak was the first Ph.D. student for another notable Illinois professor: John Bardeen.
After earning his Ph.D., Holonyak spent a year at Bell Telephone Laboratories, two years with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and six years at General Electric Company’s Advanced Semiconductor Laboratory in Syracuse, New York. In 1963, he returned to the University of Illinois as a professor where he worked for fifty years before retiring in 2013.
It was during his time with General Electric that Holonyak made his most notable contribution: the invention of a light-emitting diode (LED) which he demonstrated on October 9, 1962. Holonyak had been working closely with colleague Robert N. Hall who had developed a laser using a semiconductor diode. Hall’s laser emitted infrared radiation which is invisible to the naked eye. By using semiconductor material gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP) and the technique of stimulated emission, he succeeded in creating the first visible LED device. His device glowed red.
During his time at GE, Holonyak also invented silicon tunnel diodes and was the first to observe phonon-assisted tunneling. In his fifty years at Illinois, he pioneered the use of a number of alloys in diodes and in 1977, he and one of his students invented the very first quantum-well laser diode.
Recognitions and Awards
Professor Holonyak has received a number of awards and recognitions for his revolutionary work in electrical engineering.
- Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (2021)
- National Academy of Engineering’s Draper Prize (2015)
- Lemelson-MIT Prize (2004)
- Global Energy Prize from Russia (2003)
- Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor (2003)
- U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation (2002)
- Japan Prize (1995)
- U.S. National Medal of Science (1990)
Few alumni of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have gone on to change the world in the way Holonyak has with his invention of the LED. In 2019, the Board of Trustees voted to rename the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory (MNTL) in order to celebrate his legacy as an alumnus, a professor, and a revolutionary in the field of electrical engineering.