Light Emitting Diode (LED)

“New York City and you’re flying in an airplane and you see all these lights. And you think lights, lights, lights, lights, lights.”

Nick Holonyak

Nick Holonyak Jr.’s mom was an orphan. His dad was a coal miner. After a stint in the mine’s, Nick decided school sounded like a fine idea.

Holonyak was the first graduate student of two-time Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen, inventor of the semiconductor.

Holonyak worked at General Electric in the laser group. Lasers, to that time, were infrared and invisible to the naked eye. In 1962, Holonyak invented a Light Emitting Diode (LED) that emitted a red light, making the laser light visible. To this day, all red lasers are based on Holonyak’s work.

In 1963 Holonyak left GE for academia, joining the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. GE, along with other competitors, built a substantial LED business that still exists. Additionally, other companies went on to use the technology to improve devices from lasers to television and computer screens.

GE build from their own LED light business. However, with the innovation of LED light bulbs that last for decades, their core lighting business is destined for extinction as the need for replacement bulbs is expected to wane. As of 2019, GE has been working for years to sell the light-bulb business that dates back to Edison and launched the business. However, thanks to the longevity of LED lights, they so far failed to find a buyer.

Markedly, Holonyak has no received a Nobel Prize despite that the prize was awarded to the inventor of blue LED’s, a derivative of Holonyak’s work.

“They’re so damn cheap.”

Nick Holonyak

Videotape Recorder

Charles Ginsberg invented the videotape recorder, that put images onto tape, in 1951. Ampex sold their first video recorder, the VRX-1000, in 1956 to CBS for $50,000 ($462,000 in 2018). Ampex recorders were sold exclusively to television studios.

Before videotape recordings, television broadcasts either played a movie in front of a TV camera or broadcast live. There were earlier video tape-recording devices, but they never worked well enough for commercial use. Pre-recording television shows became the norm after the invention of the videotape recorder.

Ampex was a “stock market darling” during the 1950s. However, after a 1960 announcement that GE was entering the market (which they never did), the stock price dropped and never recovered.

Eventually, Japanese companies earned the lion’s share of revenue and profits from home video technology. After two bankruptcies, Delta Information Systems purchased Ampex for the brand name in October 2014.


“Xerography was an invention we didn’t know we needed until, suddenly, we didn’t know how we lived without it.”

Carlson biographer David Owen

Chester Carlson

Chester Carlson had a childhood nobody would want to copy. His father was perennially ill and poor. Mom, dad, and young Chester lived in a leaky hut in Mexico until forced to flee due to the Mexican Revolution. By eight years old, young Carlson was the family’s sole breadwinner. His mom died when he was a teen and he lived with his father in a chicken shack.

Like countless poor people today, he started college at Riverside Junior College. Eventually, thanks to good grades and hard work, he transferred to and graduated from the California Institute of Technology, Caltech.

He graduated in 1930, one of the worst years of the Great Depression. Burdened by $1,500 of student loan debt, a staggering amount at the time, about 80 companies turned him down for work. Eventually, he found a job at Bell Labs in New York City, first as a research assistant then as an assistant in the patent office.


By 1936, Carlson began a night program at New York Law School to further his career in the patent office. But he was still poor and could not afford books. Frustrated, he copied the law books longhand thinking that between the amount of copying he did at work, and now at school, there must be a better way to copy paper.

Carbon paper in use at the time could only make, at most, ten copies at once. Photographs were too expensive, requiring film, paper, and special chemicals. Carlson envisioned a plain-paper copying system.

After kitchen experiments failed, he realized the need to use static electricity to attract a black powder, a toner, to paper. His first successful experiment was to print the date, “10.-22.-38 ASTORIA.” His hired lab assistant was underwhelmed enough that he quit. Carlson continued and, as a patent lawyer, protected his work; the first patent for “electrophotography” was issued October 6, 1942.

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Carlson’s First Photocopy


In 1944, Carlson contracted to work with the non-profit Battelle Memorial Institute to refine the process. They tried to license the technology. Countless companies passed until the tiny Haloid Corporation, which made photo paper, decided to invest in Carlson’s machines. Soon after, they renamed the company Xerox.

The first Xerox, Model A, was released in 1949.

Work on a large-volume plain-paper single-step machine continued. Feedback for a dozen prototypes was awful. Due to the static electricity used for the toner, they shocked people. They broke down, jammed, and caught fire often enough engineers insisted the machines come with a fire extinguisher attached. But when Haloid went to retrieve the prototypes nobody wanted to give theirs back.

The iconic Xerox Model 914 was released in 1959. Carlson became famously wealthy and eventually donated most of his money to charity.

Cable Television

Cable television brings television channels to customers without antennas. Later versions bring more channels than analog antennas provided.

Walson owned a small company, Service Electric, located in a mountainous region in Pennsylvania. Frustrated that buyers of his televisions could not receive a signal he climbed a mountain and installed an antenna at the top. Eventually, with more antennas, cables, and amplifiers, he delivered a high-quality signal to his customers.

Walson expanded his cable system, eventually adding better equipment including microwave transmitters.

While simply trying to improve his own service, Walson created an enormous market. Miraculously, his cable service still exists in 2018. Service Electric remains a private company, run by his grandson, with estimated 2017 revenues of $51 million. In contrast, Comcast – the largest US cable TV provider – had 2017 revenues of $84.5B.

Instant Photographs

Long before the digital camera Polaroid’s delivered instant photographic gratification, albeit it at a steep price.

Like countless tech inventors after him, Land dropped out of Harvard. He sneaked into the labs at Columbia while developing early Polaroid light filter technology. Land’s Polaroid created polarizing light filters, especially useful as sunglasses during WWII.

Eventually, he turned his attention to instant photographs. They offered their first camera, the Polaroid Land Model 95, to the public in the winter of 1948. The company earned most of its profits selling the expensive instant film.

Polaroid adopted an innovative marketing campaign, hiring famous artists to take Polaroid pictures. They hired, among others, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, William Wegman, Mary Ellen Marks, Andy Warhol, and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Kodak eventually created an instant camera. Interestingly, Kodak’s advertising campaign increased the technologically superior Polaroid cameras. Eventually, in October 1990, a judge ruled that Kodak had violated Polaroid’s intellectual property, ordered Kodak to stop making cameras, and awarded Polaroid $909.5 million.

While Polaroid and Kodak were busy suing one another, other companies were working to improve the sensors and technology in digital cameras. Polaroid filed for bankruptcy almost exactly 11 years after their court victory, in October 2001. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in January 2012.

Photo by Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams

“’Always remember that someone, somewhere, is making a product that will make your product obsolete.”

Georges Doriot


Before Farnsworth, there were various types of mechanical TV that used spinning disks (Nipkow disks) and electrical transmitters, none of which ever gained traction. John Logie Baird invented the most widely known mechanical TV.

Electrical Television

Farnsworth had a small group of innovators, who invested $25,000. They eventually told him to give up so he and his team ー he was self-taught, but his co-innovators were from top schools, including MIT ー worked for free. On Sept. 7, 1927, they managed to televise movement of a single line. They followed up by televising movies a mile. Their lab was in LA.

Farnsworth invented electronic television and filed for a patent Jan. 7, 1927. Farnsworth received two patents in Aug. 1930, one for the camera and another for the receiver.

Russian immigrant Vladimir Zworykin was working for RCA bigwig David Sarnoff (see Armstrong) on the east coast. Farnsworth had an initial investment of $100,000 and virtually unlimited future funding. Eventually, Zworkin requested a visit to Farnsworth’s lab.

RCA Steals Farnsworth’s Technology

Farnsworth’s motives for allowing them in were unclear; historians speculate they thought Zworkin and RCA (or Westinghouse, his prior employer) would license his technology and patents rather than insist on buying the company. Significantly, Farnsworth did not want to sell his company. In April 1931, Sarnoff visited Farnsworth’ lab.

Notwithstanding no real IP, Zworkin had filed a patent in 1923 for an unfinished television. Eventually, in 1935, patent examiners declared Zworykin’s application did not describe a workable innovation leaving Farnsworth the sole patent holder for television.

Indeed, Sarnoff didn’t care and simply ignored the patents. Eventually, WWII eventually started and no television sets were sold. After the war, RCA licensed the patents for $1 million plus a royalty, though the patents were close to expiration. Farnsworth, the innovator of television, never made money from television and died, poor, in 1971.

Color Movies

Though not the first color movie, The Wizard of Oz left an indelible mark. Swapping from the old world of black and white to color the world flew over the rainbow. Movies have never been the same since.

Kalmus, an MIT alum, created a process for color movies and ramped up a company, Technicolor. Initially, there was little interest in the added expense of color films; color movies did not attract significantly larger audiences.

Eventually, Walt Disney bought a short-term exclusive user contract for some period of time and released color cartoons. Exclusivity ended in 1935 but Disney continued using the process, releasing Snow White, a blockbuster, in 1937.

The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind (both 1939) created an expectation of color movies.

Mainstream color movie predated mainstream color still photography. With their large audiences, movies justified the cost of color processing whereas still photos did not.

Color movies were technically difficult to create correctly. To ensure quality, Herbert’s wife Natalie worked with movie studios. Her role at Technicolor resulted in an enormous 400+ credits on IMDB.

Eventually, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, Jr. created modern color film in 1935, with three layers of emulsion on one layer of film. They were classical musicians, not chemists, but ended up working with and selling their innovation to Kodak that named the film Kodachrome.

Color Photography


James Maxwell
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

Scottish physicist James Maxwell laid the groundwork for color photography.

Eventually, Russian Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky perfected the technique using three exposures through a red, green, and blue filter. Recombining each exposure into one print accurately portrays color. This method, combining red, green, and blue, remains the foundation of how color is reproduced to this day.

Prokudin-Gorsky’s first color photograph is of the novelist Lev “Leo” Nikolayevich Tolstoy.

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Prokudin-Gorsky traveled Tsarist Russia on a specialty train car taking thousands of color photographs, many of which still exist.

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His trip was commissioned personally by Tsar Nicholas II, who also granted him access to protected areas throughout the Russian empire.

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Later, in 1909, the Lumiere brothers created the “Autochrome” plate. The Lumiere brothers are the same who perfected projected movie images, creating the first film festival in Paris. Under the advice of their father, they abandoned movies to return the family’s already successful photography business.

Eventually, the Luminere brothers single color photography plates, called Autochrome, became the first widely available. These relatively easy-to-use mass-market color photography process.

Autochrome plates contained about four million grains of photosensitive particles, one-third each to red, green, and blue. However, since the grains were spread by hand, there was some amount of clumping giving Autochrome color photos a certain look sometimes compared to impressionist painting.

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Autochrome photo, 1907

Louis Ducos du Hauron proposed an alternate color photography method, subtractive color negatives. Rather than adding red, green, and blue subtractive color worked as filters that removed the primary colors. Subtractive negatives were cyan, magenta, and yellow.

The benefit of subtractive color is it requires vastly less light. This enabled far lower exposure times leading to more modern cameras.

Skipping ahead, DA Spencer created the first mass-market subtractive color plates in 1928, branding them Vivex. Eventually, Vivex went to work for Kodak. At the same time, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky were working on a fast, inexpensive, accurate color film in Rochester, New York. Their film was eventually branded Kodakchrome and brought color photography to the mainstream.

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Kodak Brownie

“You press the button, we do the rest” announced Kodak introducing the camera their first mass market camera.

In May 1888, George Eastman invented and sold a camera packed with film for 100 photographs. Customers snapped their hundred photos then mailed the camera back to Kodak. Kodak mailed back the prints and the camera reloaded with another 100 photos. Kodak’s mail-in camera was both easier and less expensive, an improvement over the 1884 dry-plate process.

Eventually, in 1900, Kodak employee Frank Brownell invented the user-reloadable camera, the first modern mass-produced camera. Branded the Brownie, and marketed heavily to children, the camera was inexpensive, just $1. Before, Kodak’s prior camera cost $25.

The Brownie started a revolution, bringing photography to the masses. Kodak sold 150,000 the first year of production.

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Movie Camera & Projector

In 1878, Muybridge famously created high-speed moving photos, calling his machine a Zoopraxiscope. His photos illustrated how people and animals move. Eventually, Walt Disney and other animators and artists later famously used the strips to create more realistic animations.

Eventually Edison’s Kinetoscope, publicly demonstrated in 1891, was a primitive device that showed moving pictures to one person at a time. Initially, Edison did not view his Kinetoscope as a substantive invention; it was a novelty for use in carnivals.

Subsequently, the Lumiere brothers of France, built off Edison’s work to create the first genuine movie camera and projector. They patented their movie equipment, which used perforated film Feb. 13, 1895.

The brothers showed the first movies on Dec. 28, 1885, at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, projecting ten films. Despite their success, the Lumiere’s refused to sell their movie equipment to others, making commercialization impossible. Later, they would create an early color film company, and had a family film company that was already doing well, so they prospered financially, just not from movies.

The Lumiere’s built upon Edison’s work because Edison failed to register European patents, believing his innovation to be impractical. Therefore, Many consider the Lumiere’s the true inventors of movies since multiple people could watch at the same time. Eventually, Edison did improve his movie camera and projector and built it into a successful business.