Timeline: The Evolution of the LED

How light-emitting diodes moved forward during the past 40 years

13 February 2017

In celebration of The Institute’s 40th anniversary year, we’re presenting a series of timelines highlighting technologies that have moved forward significantly during the past four decades. 

Researcher Rubin Braunstein, of the Radio Corporation of America, in Princeton, N.J., first reported in an American Physical Society journal in September 1955 that simple gallium arsenide diodes could emit infrared light when carrying a current. For his discovery, RCA awarded him a US $100 bonus ($900 in today’s money). It was not until 1962 that IEEE Life Fellow Nick Holonyak Jr., then a 33-year-old scientist at General Electric, developed the first visible light-emitting diode, a red LED. GE called it “the magic one” because the light was visible to the human eye. Holonyak hadn’t been working on an LED; he was hoping to make a solid-state laser.

That same year, two engineers from Texas Instruments, in Dallas—IEEE Life Fellow James R. Biard and Gary Pittman—received the first patent for an infrared LED. GE and Texas Instruments began selling LEDs in late 1962 for about $260 apiece. The LEDs were small enough for IBM to install on circuit boards; their red light signalled a system error. By the 1970s, LEDs were displaying numbers in calculators and digital watches.

This article was written with assistance from the IEEE History Center, which is partially funded by donations to the IEEE Foundation.

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