Palisadian Rubin Braunstein’s LED Discovery Cited

By Sue Pascoe

“My husband should have won the Nobel Prize in physics,” Jacqueline Braunstein told the Palisades News after learning about this year’s winners on Oct. 7.

Jacqueline’s husband is long-time Pacific Palisades resident Rubin Braunstein, 92, who was credited with the invention of the first LED, developed when he worked for RCA (Radio Corporation of America) in the late 1950s.

He received a nice watch for his discovery, but certainly never any royalties once LED lights came into popular use over the past decade. And then came the Nobel Prize oversight, when it was awarded to two Japanese citizens and a U.S. citizen born in Japan.

Palisadian Rubin Braunstein, who invented the first LED in the 1950s, with wife Jacqueline. Photo: Wendy Price Anderson
Palisadian Rubin Braunstein, who invented the first LED in the 1950s, with wife Jacqueline. Photo: Wendy Price Anderson

Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura received the Nobel for “the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes which has enabled bright and energy-saving white light sources.”

It turns out that Braunstein’s wife of 66 years isn’t the only one who feels her husband was overlooked.

In an Oct. 9 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “How America Lighted the Way for a Japanese Nobel,” Benjamin Gross wrote: “The story of the blue LED begins not in Japan but in New Jersey, at the Princeton laboratories of the Radio Corporation of America. . . . The company was interested in so-called compound semi-conductors consisting of more than one element, such a gallium arsenide, which RCA’s Rubin Braunstein used to build the first infrared LED.”

Braunstein reported on infrared emission from gallium arsenide and other semiconductor alloys in 1955. Two years later, he demonstrated that rudimentary devices could be used for non-radio communication across a short distance. As noted in historical records, “Braunstein set up a simple optical communications link: music emerging from a record player was used via electronics to modulate the forward current of a GaAs diode. The emitted light was detected by a PbS diode some distance away. This signal was fed into an audio amplifier, and played back by a loudspeaker. Intercepting the beam stopped the music. We had a great deal of fun playing with this setup.”

The first visible-spectrum (red) LED was developed in 1962 by Nick Holonyak, Jr., and M. George Craford, a former graduate student of Holonyak, invented the first yellow LED in 1972. In 1976, T. P. Pearsall created the first high-brightness, high-efficiency LEDs for optical fiber telecommunications.

Steven Corneliussen in Physics Today noted that the Nobel Prize committee “overlooked fundamental discoveries made at RCA four decades ago.”

David Braunstein, Rubin’s son, spoke to Palisades News last week about the Nobel Prize. A graduate of Palisades High (1979) and UCLA, he earned his doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois. He explained that the Nobel Prize is worded so that only three people can receive the award.

“Sometimes the committee writes the award in a specific way,” Braunstein said, noting that this will then determine who gets the award. “It may not always go to the first person who invented something.”

In this case, the Nobel committee wrote: “This years Nobel Laureates are rewarded for having invented a new energy-efficient and environment-friendly light source— the blue light-emitting diode (LED).”

And it then acknowledged, “The first LEDs were studied and constructed during the 1950s and 1960s in several laboratories.

They emitted light at different wavelengths, from the infrared to the green. However, emitting blue light proved to be a difficult task, which took three more decades to achieve. It required the development of techniques for the growth of high-quality crystals as well as the ability to control p-doping of semiconductors with high bandgap, which was achieved with gallium-nitride (GaN) only at the end of the 1980s.”

“Dad’s paper is cited in the scientific background on the Nobel site that talks about the [2014] award,” Braunstein said. “5. R. Braunstein, Phys. Rev. 99, 1892 (1955).”

David understands why his 94-year-old mom is so upset. “She was with dad when he spent all of his time in the laboratory. If the Nobel committee had not credited him, then I would have been really upset,” he said. “It’s a complicated thing about who invented what. But dad was cited, and that’s fair.”

The Braunstein’s other son, Mark, graduated from Palisades Charter High School in 1977 and is a doctor in the San Fernando Valley.

Rubin Braunstein earned his doctorate in physics at Syracuse University in 1954 (specializing in experimental condensed matter) and its now professor emeritus at UCLA in the physics department.

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