Friends & colleagues remember Nick Holonyak, Jr.

9/23/2022 1:37:02 PM Cassandra Smith

The "Father of the LEDs" passed away, but his work lives on in the memories of former colleagues and students. 

In 1962, Nick Holonyak, Jr. did the unthinkable; he created the first practical visible-spectrum LED. His research would go on to shape the world of illumination as well as other areas including fiber-optic communication lines and other electronics. 

Now, Holonyak has inspired a new generation of innovators. ECE Associate Professor Can Bayram’s work coincides with Holonyak’s as he is on the hunt for the missing component in the equation for true white LED...the green light. 

Bayram, along with other researchers, found a way to battle the “efficiency droop” that has made it difficult to achieve the desired hue. 

“This is a topic that is so rich,” said Bayram while discussing LEDs and Holonyak’s influence on the lighting industry. 

“His work will never dissipate...His memory will always live on...His bright light will always be there forever,” said Bayram. 

Holonyak wanted to be in an environment to educate and shape the future, according to Bayram. He wanted to expand students’ knowledge so they could contribute to society. His focus was on helping others. 

And former graduate student turned colleague, Professor Milton Feng, can tell you just how much he pushed his students. He said that in 2004, he "demonstrated the fastest transistor in the world toward THz" which led to a lot of publicity. "Nick asked me, 'Did you see light from [the] transistor?" He asked him that question while he was drinking coffee with him in the lab. He ignored the question "since transistor researchers do not worry about light for device operation." However, after Holonyak persisted with that particular question, Feng wondered if he was on to something.

An LED tea light candle in a glass holder. The LED light honors Nick Holonyak, Jr. and his invention of the LED light.
An LED tea light candle in a glass holder at the University of Notre Dame Grotto. The LED light honors Nick Holonyak, Jr. and his invention of the LED light.

After two months, Feng discovered "light" from the transistor, which could be modulated as "light signal," he said. He remembered Holonyak looking at him with a "big smile" and yelling at him, "We have a big breakthrough!" That "breakthrough" would be known as the "transistor laser," a "powerful...novel device that you can have an electrical signal input converted into both lasers service as cells both optical electrical and optical amplifiers and switch and signal mixing for [a] new frontier of electronic-photonic integrated circuits (EPICs)." Feng remembered Holonyak telling him that the "transistor laser" may have been the most important device discovery sing the transistor, discovered by John Bardeen.


Holonyak is remembered fondly by many, including those at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. In an email among several of Holonyak's peers, Professor Douglas Hall shared Holonyak was his graduate school dissertation advisor at UIUC. He also shared that his Notre Dame colleague, Associate Provost Christine Maziar, lit a candle at their Grotto for Holonyak. While she lit the candle for him, she also had a "Nick Special" candle, which was an LED tea light. She thought it would bring a smile to those who knew Holonyak.