Who Really Invented The Blue LED?

According to the Nobel Prize committee, it was three Japanese scientists, but a patent from the 1970s tells a different story.


A dispute is simmering in the materials science community over the just-announced award of Nobel Prize in physics to three Japanese scientists, Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura. Two materials science Ph.D. students from Stanford claim they got there first—two decades earlier, in fact. There’s even a U.S. patent filed by Stanford University to prove it.

Akasaki and Amano worked at Nagoya University, according to the Nobel Prize committee, while Nakamura worked at Nichia Chemicals, But on July 7, 1972, Wally Rhines, now CEO of Mentor Graphics, and Herbert Maruska, then employed by RCA, sat down with a copy of the periodic table and went through it to see which combinations they hadn’t tried yet.

“We were wasting time, as usual, and Herb was speculating whether there was any way to get blue light out of an LED,” said Rhines. “Herb was working on gallium nitride, I was working on gallium arsenide, and I looked at magnesium and asked him, ‘Have you tried this?’ He said he had never tried it, and to the best of his knowledge no one else had ever tried it, either. We needed something out of Group II, and zinc didn’t work.”

Neither did the first attempt at creating a thin film using a magnesium-doped oxide. In fact, it melted the crucible. But a week later, Maruska came up with a thin film of magnesium-doped gallium nitride that he had worked on.

“We cranked up the voltage and it turned blue,” said Rhines. “We knew it was important at the time. RCA felt that if they could get a blue LED they would be able to build a solid-state color television. Stanford patented it with both our names on it and Herb did his Ph.D. thesis on this.”

Rhines told the story to Douglas Fairbairn of the Computer History Museum in 2012, before the Nobel Prize was awarded. Maruska, meanwhile, wrote a paper on the subject, noting that by the time the work was beginning to get rolling at RCA, the company was collapsing due to what he called “inept corporate management.” As a result, the blue LED project was canceled.

Where this goes next is anyone’s guess. Nobel Prizes typically go to the people who invented technology, which was patented on June 25, 1974 as the first blue-violet light-emitting diode. In this case, it went to the people who perfected the blue LED nearly two decades later.

  • Bill Martin

    I am surprised this did not go to the first visible LED invented by Prof. Nick Holonyak (John Bardeen’s first PhD candidate at U of I). Prior to this, all were infrared.

    Illinois Magazine had a nice article on Prof Holonyak a few issues ago when he retire after 50 years at Illinois.

  • Bill Jewell

    And Lief Erikson discovered America 500 years before Columbus. Columbus gets all the credit because his discovery led directly to European exploration and settlement in America. Often is the the people who turn a technology into practical products who get the credit rather than the people who created something in a lab but did not pursue it. If you ask people who invented the automobile many will say it was Henry Ford.

    • Glenn Sherman

      It is an insult to Nick Holonyak, the entire LED world exists because of his ground-breaking work.

      Glenn Sherman

  • Opticsace

    Just for the record, V.F. Tsvetkov at Siemens began working on SiC blue LED’s in the early 1970’s, culminating with the introduction of the 1st commercial blue LED in 1977,