Lighting up the Dark: The Invention of LED Lights

July 30, 2017

Lighting up the Dark: The Invention of LED Lights

The world would be a dark place without the electric light bulb. Can you imagine trying to work by candlelight? Until 1879, when Tomas Alva Edison’s version of the incandescent light became an everyday convenience, fire was still the best way to light up a dark room.

Then, for the next eighty years, not much changed. In the 1920s, frosted light bulbs and adjustable power beam bulbs for car headlamps were created. Then, the 1930s welcomed one-time flash bulbs before the 40s brought the first “soft light” incandescent bulbs. 

The greatest change in lighting didn’t happen until 1962, when 33-year-old Nick Holonyak, Jr. created the first light-emitting diode (LED). His invention was called “the magic one” at General Electric, and it since changed the world.

About LED Lights 

LEDs are an electronic component that emits light when connected to a direct current. They work based on the electroluminescent principle and, uniquely, can emit light both on the visible spectrum as well as the infrared and ultraviolet spectrums. 

What really make LED lights stand out from traditional bulbs are their low energy consumption, small size, longer lifetime, and faster switching. 

In 1962, when Holonyak patented the first LED light it was for a red LED, and it was outrageously expensive: $260 a pop. Then, within ten years, there were both green and yellow LED lights.

Still, due to the high price and the limited options, the first LED lights were only used in professional laboratory equipment or in things such as IBM circuit boards. It wouldn’t be until the end of the 1980s that most normal people would see a LED light in traffic lights and/or brake lights.

Now, you’ll find LEDs everywhere.

Benefits of LED Light 

LED lights are literally saving the world one light at a time. Public lighting services use up an incredible 19% of the world’s energy consumption. It’s a staggering figure especially when you also consider that this energy costs upwards of 40% of a municipality’s budget. 

However, a simple changeover to LED lights could make a big difference. LED lights are 40%-60% more efficient than current lighting in most major cities. They also last longer than traditional streetlights: 15-20 years compared to five years. 

This results in a huge environmental impact savings. When Boston switched over to LEDs in 2010, their energy use and carbon emission dropped by an astonishing 60%.

And businesses are also hopping on board the LED light train. Retail giants such as Starbucks, Walmart, Target, and Marriot use LEDs in their locations to cut their energy and maintenance costs.

Uses for LED Lights

You might not realize it, but LED lights are everywhere. Mary Beth Gotti, a Manager of the GE Lighting Institute, explained it in an interview on the GE website.

“LEDs provide lighting in a variety of electronic devices and indicators including elevator buttons, exit signs, cell and smart phone displays, TVs, PCs, tablet computers, commercial signage, full motion video screens in sports venues, microscopic surgical equipment, railroad crossings, and airport taxiway lights,” she said. “And they are now hitting mainstream lighting applications like parking lots, roadways, accent lighting, general lighting, and more.”

And there are some incredibly surprising uses for LED lights that you might not have even thought about. How about LED ‘fluorescent’ lights, such as what you find in hospitals. These LEDs can cut energy costs by upwards of 50% while also decreasing the risk of health problems caused by fluorescent bulbs.

There are also LED grow lights. Now that marijuana has become mainstream in many states, cultivating facilities are looking for ways to grow pot without wasting a ton of energy. LED lights, while more expensive up front, are helping growers lower their energy and cooling costs while still growing great weed.

Advantages and Disadvantages of LED Lights 

That doesn’t mean LED lights are perfect. They have some advantages and disadvantages just like any technology.


  • Energy efficient over short distances and small areas.
  • Durable and shock proof, more so than glass bulbs.
  • Offers directional light, which reduces stray light pollution.


  • Can be unreliable outside with great summer/winter temperature variations.
  • Reduced lumen output over time.
  • Uses rare earth metals, which can be expensive.


There’s no doubt that we’ll continue to see LEDs take over the light of the world in the next few years. They’re only getting more affordable and even more effective.

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