Thank this man for making our gaming PCs spew rainbows

There you go, beating richly RGB on your extreme gaming PC build (opens in new tab), but have you ever thought about the man behind those bright lights? M. George Craford has spent 30 years researching these small luminous wonders, and is widely regarded as the unsung hero of LEDs. This is his story.

With space exploration at the forefront of his mind, Craford began his journey into technology in the ’50s, before LEDs were even invented (thanks for the info IEEE Spectrum (opens in new tab)).

Started Early, a family friend and child science author Illa Podendorf (opens in new tab) began to feed Craford’s curious mind with all kinds of texts. Apparently this piqued his curiosity, as the kid eventually became a member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, where building rockets became a regular part of his repertoire.

A super basic introduction to tech.

In addition to rockets, he constructed all sorts of contraptions, as well as other more chemical-based experiments — once even cracking the window of his home lab with an unembedded, explosive exploit.

Further studying physics at the University of Iowa, lecturer James Van Allen (opens in new tab) inspired Craford to move on to space science, but his interest in space waned over the summer after his BA, and his journey soon turned more along the semiconductor route. Van Allen had pointed out to Craford the solid state physics course at the University of Illinois, where he was going to get his master’s and PhD.

It was here that Craford bumped into Nick Holonyak, designer of the original LED, who put on a fascinating show by dropping a small red LED into a glass Dewar of liquid nitrogen. Craford says it “lit the whole bottle with a bright red light.” It was this display that led him to drop several years of research into tunnel effects in Josephson junctions, and Holonyak took him under his wing.

Craford’s research continued in the basement of the materials research building, a nice dark place to play with high-pressure equipment for lighting experiments, using Holonyak’s lab-grown gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP) and some liquid nitrogen.

What they were trying to understand was why adding pressure to GaAsP samples caused their brightness to increase by “several orders of magnitude.” He and Greg Stillman made great strides in their research (opens in new tab) (PDF warning), finding that light shining on the samples caused resistance to decrease and remain low as long as the temperature did (this effect is known as persistent photoconductivity), although this only occurred in samples containing sulfur and not those doped with tellurium.

RGB LEDs

(Image credit: Future)

At first, they struggled to see the practical applications in their findings, and it fell on the priority list until several years later, when some researchers at Bell Laboratories dredged it back up into the spotlight, calling the phenomenon the DX Center. From there, a lot of researchers picked it up and a lot of experiments came up across the board.

After his doctorate, Craford went to work at Monsanto Co. to continue his focus on gallium arsenide phosphide research, but it was a Bell Labs researcher (who had also offered him a job after completing his PhD) that prompted Craford to develop the just color-filled RGB path.

It was Bell Lab’s successes doping gallium phosphide with Zn-O that led Craford and his team to create the bright orange, green and yellow LEDs that paved the way for the full spectrum of RGB we see in the best RGB LED strips (opens in new tab) from today.

“Wow, that’s great, but our customers are very happy with red LEDs. Who needs other colors?”

Leading LED brands at the time

Craford says the first reaction to these colorful LEDs was, “Wow, that’s great, but our customers are very happy with red LEDs. Who needs other colors?” It turns out we need them. Personally, I can’t live without them, and everyone knows that RGB also improves frame rates. So we owe a lot to Craford.

M. George Craford has spent much of his life researching LEDs, and yet Nick Holonyak tells how humble the man is. Apparently “he doesn’t promote himself, and sometimes this worries me about George;” says Holonyak. “I would like him to be more candid about the fact that he did something.”

“When George published the work,” he notes, “he put the names of the boys he had crystals growing and the things together before his name.” And yet, he explains, “Every yellow LED you see is George’s work.”

So when you lovingly look at your RGB-laden masterpiece, your gaming headset (opens in new tab)or your sparkling gaming keyboard (opens in new tab), remember Craford. An outdoorsman and sports enthusiast – who has done everything from skydiving to whitewater canoeing – he has climbed Grand Teton himself and his work has climbed to every periphery in sight.

What a guy.

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