In just over fifty years, LED lighting has progressed from limited use by benchtop hobbyists who used tiny red LED bulbs as signal indicators in electronics projects, to a household presence in video screens and lighting fixtures. Advances in the field over this period have positioned the Story of LED Lighting as the predominant technology for current and future illumination needs.
Nick Holonyak, an engineer employed by General Electric, is credited with developing the first LED. Holonyak’s development came more than fifty years after British scientists first discovered the electroluminescence effect, in which certain materials emit light when exposed to electrical fields or currents. These first LED’s that emitted light in the visible spectrum were limited to dim, red colors, but they led quickly to the development of brighter reds and light in other color spectra.
LED Goes Commercial
The first commercial applications of LED lighting came in the mid-1970s, when LED displays were incorporated into calculators and wristwatches. The LED lights used in these products were power-hungry, which limited the lifespans of the batteries in those products. They were also expensive. First-generation LED wristwatches were sold for more than $2,000, and the least expensive calculators sold for $400. These prices dropped rapidly as manufacturing ramped up to meet demand and more products with LED displays became available.
A precursor to the omnipresent flat-panel video display screens that are available everywhere today was first developed in 1977. The late 1970s also saw the development of the first organic LEDs (“OLEDs”), which were pioneered by Kodak. OLED’s include a blend of an organic substance (i.e. a material that includes carbon) with traditional semiconductor materials. OLED’s are now enabling manufacturers to make ultra-thin and flexible video display screens.
Story of LED Lighting have also played a role in advancing desktop computer technology. In 1999, Microsoft unveiled the first optical mouse with LED tracking technology. LED computer mice have almost fully supplanted mechanical computer mice that relied on a trackball, which had a tendency to become dirt-clogged and unresponsive with age.
Although LED display screens were first developed in the late 1970s, they did not achieve commercial saturation until the early 2000s, when prices dropped and manufacturing improved to produce reliable and effective screens for video displays. The quality and contrast available on those screens reflected the engineering and development efforts that were devoted to LED improvements over a thirty-year period.