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A retro Mattel hand-held football game from the mid-1970s used red LED lights invented by Nick Holonyak Jr., of Glen Carbon.
For those 48 years old and older, do you remember spending hours at school – at recess and at lunch — and at home playing Mattel’s hand-held football game, the one full of red light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, or the companion Mattel car racing game, which also used red LED lights?
Those red LEDs are the invention of Nick Holonyak, Jr. a long-time Glen Carbon resident who died Sept. 18 in Urbana at age 93. The following day, lights on the University of Illinois campus at Champaign-Urbana and Chicago glowed red in tribute.
Many people believed Holonyak deserved the Nobel Prize for his work. While he didn’t receive that honor, his work was widely recognized.
“It’s a good thing I was an engineer and not a chemist,” he noted during a 2012 interview. “When I went to show them my LEDs, all the chemists at GE said, ‘You can’t do that. If you were a chemist, you’d know that wouldn’t work.’ I said, ‘Well, I just did it, and see, it works!’”
Holonyak, the son of Slavic immigrants from the Carpathian Mountains, was born in 1928. His father moved the family to Glen Carbon in 1936, when Holonyak was 8, and they lived at 130 S. Meridian Road. He attended Glen Carbon schools and graduated from Edwardsville High School in 1946.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1950, a master’s degree in 1951 and a doctorate in 1954, all in electrical engineering and all from the University of Illinois. He was the first graduate student of two-time Nobel laureate John Bardeen, an Illinois professor and inventor of the transistor.
Holonyak was an early researcher in semiconductor electronics and became known for his many inventions and contributions that led to advances in semiconductor materials and devices. After serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps 1955 to 1957, he worked at Bell Telephone Labs in Syracuse, New York and helped develop silicon-diffused transistor technology.
Later, at General Electric, he invented the first practical LED and the first semiconductor laser to operate in the visible spectrum. Created more than 60 years ago, they are remain important technologies that paved the way to the development of energy-saving technologies used today.
Holonyak also invented thyristors, semiconductor devices that, when turned on, tend to stay on and, when turned off, stay off. Today, about 30 percent of all generated energy uses thyristors.
In 1963, he predicted LED light would one day replace incandescent light bulbs, a prediction that seems on its way to coming true
He’s also credited in 2005 with creating the household dimmer switch. He researched the wall dimmer 1958 through 1960 while working with other scientists at Bell Telephone Labs. His main contribution, he said, was to design a device that allowed electrical current to flow in both directions rather than just one.
“I didn’t design the circuit,” he said. “The element that does the controlling in there — the semi-conducting device — that’s mine.
“If you’re only using one half of that, you’re only using part of the power,” he said. “What I was responsible for was controlling the power in either polarity.”
The breakthrough that earned him international acclaim — the LED — came in 1962 when other scientists were focused on infrared light. He didn’t design all the different colors of LED, but he came up with the first one: red.
The Mattel Electronic Football Game, popular in the 1970s, was backlit by Holonyak’s LEDs. Later LEDs appeared in alarm clock displays, coffeemakers, early VCR displays, TV sets and billboards.
In 1963 Holonyak joined the U of I faculty. He and his students demonstrated the first quantum-well laser with a practical application to fiber-optic communications, compact disc players, medical diagnosis, surgery, ophthalmology and many other applications.
In 2005, he was head of the U of I Micro and Nano Lab in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He retired from teaching in 2013 after teaching at U of I for 50 years.
A former classmate of Holonyak’s remembered his days in Glen Carbon when he was a pupil of her aunt, Mamie Casna.
“My Aunt Mame always said, ‘Those Holonyaks are such bright children,'” said Marilyn Sulc. She remembered Holonyak as a quiet boy, but serious about his work.
At the former Edwardsville High School (now Lincoln Middle School) Holonyak would stare out the study hall window and watch trucks on Route 66 (now Illinois 157) on their way to Chicago. In 2018, Glen Carbon officials designated Holonyak with the first honorary street name on South Meridian Road.
A historical marker on the U of I campus recognizes his development of the quantum-well laser. He is also a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Holonyak is a 2003 recipient of the Global Energy Prize from Russia. The John Bardeen professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, shared the $900,000 equally with Ian Douglas Smith of Titan Pulse Technologies and Gennady Mesiats of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Holonyak’s work received many awards, including the Queen Elizabeth II Prize for Engineering in December 2021; the Order of Lincoln Medallion from the Lincoln Academy in 2005; the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor in 2003; the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2002; the Frederic Ives Medal of the Optical Society of America in 2001; the Japan Prize in 1995; the National Academy of Sciences’ Award for the Industrial Application of Science in 1993; the Optical Society’s Charles Hard Townes Award in 1992; and the U.S. National Medal of Science in 1990.
Charles Bolinger covers Edwardsville, Glen Carbon, Maryville, Edwardsville Township and the Collinsville School District for The Edwardsville Intelligencer. A graduate of Webster University in St. Louis, he has been writing for the paper since 2018.