In Memoriam: Nick Holonyak Jr., 1928 - 2022

September 18, 2022

Nick Holonyak Jr., Optica Honorary Member and Frederic Ives Medal/Jarus W. Quinn Prize recipient, passed away on 18 September 2022 at the age of 93. Holonyak was a pioneer in optoelectronics and credited with the development of the first practical visible-spectrum LED. His research led to the use of LED in light bulbs, device displays and lasers.

Holonyak was born in Zeigler, Illinois. His parents were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants and his father was a coal miner. Before he pursued higher education, he worked on the Illinois Central Railroad. He was the first member of his family to go to college and went on to study electrical engineering. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Holonyak studied under John Bardeen, a two-time Nobel Laureate, who joined the U of I faculty in 1951 within the Electrical Engineering and Physics department. Holonyak took an atomic physics course taught by Bardeen when he heard that he was opening a laboratory on semiconductors. In 1953, Bardeen chose Holonyak to take on a Texas Instruments fellowship with Gordon Teal. By 1954, Holonyak earned his doctorate degree and received offers from Texas Instruments, General Electric and Bell Labs. Ultimately, Holonyak went to work for Bell Labs with John Moll on a number of silicon devices, including transistors.

Holonyak continued to work in solid state science and worked for the US Army Signal Corp and General Electric. On 9 October 1962 at General Electric, Holonyak demonstrated the first visible-light-emitting diode, where he created crystals of gallium arsenide phosphide to make an LED emit visible red light. In 1963, he returned to the University of Illinois as a professor.

Holonyak went on to publish two books: Semiconductor Controlled Rectifiers (1964) and Physical Properties of Semiconductors (1989) and held 41 patents. He received numerous awards, including the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (2021), the National Academy of Engineering’s Draper Prize (2015), the Lemelson-MIT Prize (2004), the Global Energy Prize from Russia (2003), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor (2003), the Japan Prize (1995), and the National Academy of Sciences’ Award for the Industrial Application of Science (1993).

Holonyak made significant contributions to the scientific community and to Optica, formerly OSA.  He was recognized with Optica Fellow status in 1990 and the Charles Hard Townes Award in 1992 for his career in quantum electronics, particularly his contributions to semiconducting and light-emitting sources.  In 1997, Optica formerly OSA, established the Nick Holonyak, Jr. award in his honor which is presented to an individual who has made significant contributions to optics based on semiconductor-based optical devices and materials, including basic science and technological applications. The award is endowed by SDL Ventures, LLC, and Donald and Carol Scifres. In 2001, Holonyak was recognized with the Frederic Ives Medal/Jarus W. Quinn Prize for his pioneering work in the field of semiconductor lasers and LEDs. He was selected as an Honorary Member of Optica (2015) for fundamental, inventive and widely influential contributions to optics and photonics including the visible LED and the quantum well diode laser, technologies underlying solid-state lighting, the internet, and high-performance computing.  

Holonyak is survived by his wife, Katherine.

Optica, his former students and the scientific community mourn his loss.