Famed UI professor still lighting the way

Famed UI professor still lighting the way

URBANA — Sitting in his comfy chair with a long, typewritten document he has been working on, Nick Holonyak recalls going to a local store with his wife, Kay, to buy a dimmer switch for their home.

Holonyak, of course, is the legendary University of Illinois engineering professor emeritus, known throughout the world for his breakthrough LED invention, one that emitted visible red light instead of infrared light. After asking the store employee detailed questions about the switch's manufacturer, Holonyak let him in on who he was — and what he had done.

The look he got back was a "no way." The employee didn't believe him, Kay recalled with a laugh as she and her husband of 62 years reminisced Monday afternoon in Nick's room at Urbana's Clark-Lindsey Village.

At 89 — nine years removed from his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and four since he retired after a 50-year run at the UI — Holonyak remains a man in demand.

Just look at his Clark-Lindsey guest list.

Among the steady stream of former doctoral students of Holonyak's who have dropped by: George Craford, who has known the professor since their days as grad students in the 1960s. Craford's contributions to electrical engineering include developing the technology that led to the highest-brightness yellow, amber and red LEDs and world-class blue LEDs.

Holonyak said the two of them spent two afternoons together last week.

"Yeah, I get a lot of visitors. Sometimes I'm flooded," Holonyak said very matter-of-factly, adding that it wears him out these days. Last week alone, he visited with Craford as well as a former Ph.D. student from Korea and some of the UI campus electricians, he said.

He's also not through adding to a list of awards that includes the National Medal of Science, the National Academy of Engineering's Charles Stark Draper Prize, the Japan Prize and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Edison Medal, to name a few.

Last month, more than a half-century after inventing the first viable LED, Holonyak was awarded the Progress Medal — the highest honor given by the Photographic Society of America.

It was presented to Holonyak for his LED work that has impacted photography.

Greg Duncan, chairman of the Progress Award committee, said Holonyak's LED breakthrough led to innovations by others.

"And the LED is now a central part of photography," Duncan said.

Previous winners of the Progress Medal include Walt Disney, Ansel Adams, Jacques-Yves Cousteau (for his undersea photography research), Steve J. Sasson and the inventors of GoPro cameras.


'Big-time' Bardeen

In a reflective mood this week, Holonyak heaped praise on the group that served him best during his professor days — "the students" — and the mentor whom he believes did more to change everyday lives than Albert Einstein — John Bardeen.

Bardeen, a UI professor from 1951 to 1991, won the Nobel Prize in 1956 for inventing the transistor. He added a second 16 years later for the theory of superconductivity, making him the only two-time winner of the Nobel of Physics.

"John was big-time. I never met anyone who exceeded Bardeen," said Holonyak, who was Bardeen's first graduate student at the UI, earning his bachelor's, master's and doctorate, all in electrical engineering, all between 1950 to 1954.

Holonyak went to work at Bell Telephone Laboratories, following in Bardeen's footsteps, but waived his military deferment. After spending two years in the Army, he started at General Electric's corporate research labs in New York, where he had his "firsts" in electronic and photon devices.

In 1963, Bardeen convinced Holonyak to return to the UI, where he continued his semiconductor and LED work, retiring in 2013.


Back to work

Despite physical challenges stemming from nerve issues that have led to six surgeries — three of them considered very serious, according to his wife — Holonyak remains sharp mentally. A shelf in his room is filled with books.

"I could not exist without reading," said Holonyak, who reads, writes and works nearly every day, and can rattle off a story with amazing detail and recall research, facts, figures and names easily.

"My mind still works, and my memory," he said, "but it used to be better."

He still meets weekly with UI Engineering Professor Milton Feng, who co-created the first transistor laser, teaming up with Holonyak in 2004. They're still working together on that technology.

Kay Holonyak, who also lives at Clark-Lindsey, said she and Nick keep each other going these days. She has been by his side all the way, accompanying him on trips to receive all of his awards — including ones to Russia, where they met Vladimir Putin; Japan, where they sat across from the Emperor; and two to the White House where they met the first and second President Bush.

Funny thing, though, Kay said. They didn't actually get to see much of Russia, or Japan, or the White House.

"He always had to get back to work. It was his hobby, his life," she said, pausing with a smile on her face.

"And he's still that way."

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