Happy birthday, LED! America’s green bulb turns 50

Fifty years later, the LED is used in a wide range of products and technologies in just about every industry.

In October 1962, a General Electric (GE) engineer named Nick Holonyak made the first push in a decades-long effort to turn the United States into a nation of energy efficiency. His creation was the light-emitting diode (LED), which resulted from semiconductor experimentations taking place at GE. Fifty years later, the LED is used in a wide range of products and technologies in just about every industry.

An LED is powered by an electron laser that illuminates a piece of material, providing the well-known light we know today {kind of odd wording, also I added "today" in the next sentence for clarity. reword}. While they come in many colors today, according to a piece by Wired Magazine, back in 1962 there was only one shade available: red. This is because the original compound used to make the device, gallium arsenide phosphide – takes on a reddish tint when exposed to air.

The biggest advantage of the LED is that it consumes a drastically smaller amount of energy than its incandescent cousin: roughly 85 percent less in some cases. Additionally, they can last for a much longer duration of continuous use. This innovation enabled deployment to skyrocket, and according to an article by Green Tech Media, the LED market is expected to reach revenues of $1 billion in 2014.

In an interview, Holonyak cited an atmosphere of competition during the 1960s, when multiple engineers were hunting for the Next Big Thing that would transform American technology – and make them rich.

"If they can make a laser, I can make a better laser than any of them because I've made this alloy that is in the red – visible," he recounted thinking at the time during the GE-sponsored recap. "And I'm going to be able to see what's going on. And they're stuck in the infrared."

Next time you see an LED this month, stop and wish it a happy birthday. If you don't get a chance, there's no reason to worry – these energy-efficient wonders will surely be around for many birthdays to come.

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