For years many of Nick Holonyak Jr.’s colleagues have said he deserved the Nobel Prize for his invention of the first light-emitting diode, the tiny red light that made fiber-optics networks, DVDs and a range of other technologies possible.
Holonyak has always resisted the suggestion that he and his 1962 invention had been snubbed.
But Tuesday’s Nobel Prize in physics to the men who created the first blue LED prompted the retired University of Illinois professor to question why that LED is worthy while his — the very first — is not. In an interview with The Associated Press in the Urbana, Ilinois assisted-living facility where he resides, the 85-year-old Holonyak said the blue LED would never have happened without the work he and others did 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).”
Blue LEDs have continued the evolution begun by the red LED, leading to the invention of smartphones and computer and television screens. Blue LEDs also combine with green and red LEDs to create light that appears white, an energy-efficient replacement for traditional incandescent bulbs. One popular use is to make Christmas lights brighter.
Holonyak assumed several years ago that he would never get the Nobel and accepted that, said his wife, Katherine.
“Hell, I’m an old guy now,” he added. “But I find this one insulting.”
Tuesday’s prize went to Japanese scientists Isamu Akasaki, 85, a professor at Meijo University, Nagoya; and Hiroshi Amano, 54, a professor at Nagoya University; and Japanese-born American scientist Shuji Nakamura, 60, of the University of California at Santa Barbara.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences briefly referenced Holonyak’s work in the scientific background issued with the prize Tuesday but made no reference to him not winning the award. A spokeswoman of the Royal Swedish Academy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Holonyak wasn’t diminishing the work of the scientists who were honored Tuesday. He knows Nakamura, he said.
But Holonyak believes the work on the blue LED can’t 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.
Delaina Amos, a University of Louisville professor who works with LEDs, said the blue LED is worthy of recognition, but believes Holonyak’s invention is too.
“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 railroads 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 Honor 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.”