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Nick Holonyak: He Saw The Lights

The electrical engineering professor's LEDs may soon make incandescent and fluorescent bulbs obsolete

Creative people who dream of leaving their mark on the world can't help but envy Nick Holonyak Jr. Already his handiwork in light-emitting devices shines brightly almost anywhere you look. Soon it'll be even more evident because one of Holonyak's ideas -- the light-emitting diode, or LED -- is poised to turn Thomas Edison's light bulbs into museum pieces.

Holonyak built his first LED in 1962, when he was a researcher at General Electric Co. (GE ). It emitted only red light. But today its descendants glow in a rainbow of colors. You can't miss them in New York's Times Square, where huge billboards, such as the eight-story-tall NASDAQ display, gleam brightly even during the day. More LEDs are in the traffic lights and buses. Cars jamming the streets have LED turn signals, brake lights, and dashboard displays. Headlights are next.