Now that LED lights are becoming increasingly affordable, they’re seen in more residential and commercial properties than ever. This is a good thing, as LED lights are one of the most energy-efficient light bulbs on the market today, but how did they come to be?

LED lighting was invented by accident. The first light-emitting diodes were developed in the early 1960s during an attempt to create laser diodes for radar antennas. Initially, LEDs were in the infrared range beyond human sight. Visible ones came one year later.

This article will take a deep dive into the origin of LEDs and why they’re so efficient. We’ll explain how they work and why they now light our homes instead of our antennae.

The Accident That Led to the Invention of LED Lighting

A series of happy accidents led to the LEDs we enjoy today.

The discovery of electroluminescence itself was an accident, and the accidental invention of light-emitting diodes was based on pre-existing electroluminescence research.

Accident 1: Electroluminescence

Although the light bulb was invented in the 1870s, electroluminescent power wasn’t discovered until 1907.

electroluminescent LED string lights with the word electroluminescence in the middle lit up

The original light bulbs created light by heating internal filaments, while electroluminescent bulbs produced light with the flow of electrons inside crystals.

H.J. Round was a British engineer in the early 1900s who mainly worked with radio. He used cat whiskers (without a cat attached) to conduct various substances during his research.

In one of his experiments, he passed an electric current through a whisker attached to silicon carbide and noticed a glow.

Amazingly, he also realized that the glow emitted different colors under different circumstances. In his letter to Electric World, he wrote:

“On applying a potential of 10 volts between two points on a crystal of carborundum [silicon carbide], the crystal gave out a yellowish light… but with 110 volts a large number could be found to glow. In some crystals only edges gave the light and others gave instead of a yellow[,] light green, orange or blue.”

Indeed, this was a major breakthrough. Edison’s light bulbs weren’t capable of producing different colors. But it would be a while before this discovery would be used in homes.

Accident 2: Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs)

a hand in the middle of the picture holding up a lit up LED light bulb with a garden in the background
Did you know the creation of LED lighting was an accident? You could say it was a light bulb moment! Eureka!

Between 1907 and 1961, a lot of research had already been done on electroluminescence.

However, it wasn’t until 1936 that scientists figured out how the process worked on an electron level.

From there, people started finding ways to harness it.

In its early days, electroluminescence research was mainly for military purposes.

Namely, it was seen as a way to illuminate radar screens. Later, it would also enhance television screens and create a sharper image.

In 1961, Robert Biard and Gary Pittman of Texas Instruments used the existing research to create laser diodes for radar antennas.

Their invention turned out differently than intended, but it was well-spent. These laser diodes were the first instance of the LEDs we know today.

One year later, Nick Holonyak of General Electric adapted these laser diodes to emit visible light. Then the first commercial LED lamps went on the market in 1968.

How Do LED Lights Work?

As mentioned, LED lights run on electroluminescence. Of course, a modern LED bulb doesn’t include any cat whiskers.

Instead, we use microchips to harness light-emitting electrical energy.

Each microchip is filled with tiny light-emitting diodes that express visible light. The microchip conducts electricity from your socket into its diodes.

The material used in these diodes varies between bulbs. That’s because different materials cause the diodes to emit different colors.

Aluminum indium gallium phosphide (AllnGaP) creates red and orange. Indium gallium nitride (InGaN) forms blue and green.

LEDs in a variety of colors against a dark background
LEDs come in a variety of bright hues that enlighten our lives.

Varying combinations of these materials create the wide range of colors we see in LEDs.

For example, a purple light might balance red AllnGaP and blue InGaN to get the desired hue.

White light comes from combining equal amounts of blue, green, and red-emitting materials in one chip or using multiple chips in one bulb.

Why Are LED Lights Energy-Efficient?

LEDs emit light with electrons instead of heat, but why is that more energy-efficient?

Firstly, 95 percent of an incandescent bulb’s electricity is spent generating heat instead of light. That waste of energy will cause a huge dent in your electric bill.

(You can check out other factors that increase your electric bill in this article.)

Since LEDs don’t need heat to illuminate, you can rest assured that all the electricity they use will go towards creating light.

So even if we compare light usage, LEDs use 75 percent less energy to produce light.

That’s only one of many reasons why LEDs are an excellent green solution. Here are a few more reasons.

LEDs Are Long-Lasting

On average, an LED bulb has a lifespan of 25,000 hours.

That’s exceptionally long, considering a CFL bulb’s average life span is 8,000 hours, and an incandescent bulb lasts only 1,200 hours.

Some users report that their LED bulbs have lasted for 20 years. Highly efficient Energy Star models can sometimes last even longer.

LED lighting with other types of lights
LED lights outlast other types of lights, making them a more cost-effective purchase.

After the 25,000-hour threshold, your LED won’t immediately burn out. It just won’t be as bright. Some people are okay with continuing usage after it’s become dimmer.

Longer lifespans mean you need to buy fewer bulbs to get the job done.

Even though LED bulbs have a higher initial cost, they’re more cost-effective in the long run. You won’t need to replace them often, and fewer bulbs end up in the landfill.

LED Bulbs Can Take a Beating

Another reason why you don’t need to replace your LEDs often is that they can withstand a lot. For this reason, many experts think they’re ideal for outdoor lights.

Extreme weather conditions like high winds, freezing temperatures, and heavy rain can break other bulbs. LEDs can endure it.

Fewer Watts for Higher Lumens

Watts refer to electricity requirements, and lumens refer to brightness. Generally, more watts means more lumens.

The higher the electricity usage, the brighter the bulb. This is not the case with LEDs. LED lights can shine bright without using many watts.

LED bulbs have two watt levels. Many products will have an “equivalent” number and an “efficient” number.

This means that you can get the brightness of a bulb at the equivalent level for the efficient watt level.

They’ll Still Run If You Use Low-Voltage Power Sources

Since LEDs need fewer watts to shine, you can use low-voltage sources to run them.

You can even combine LEDs with solar power without decreasing the quality of your light.

This is because LEDs run on electron flow instead of straight electrical voltage. So you simply don’t need to use as much power to get the same result.

Additionally, other bulbs can be damaged if your voltage is too low. This is not an issue with LEDs. Low voltage won’t cause any damage to the bulb.

While LEDs can run on a comparatively lower voltage, they will still need a minimum amount of power. Consult your product description to see your bulb’s requirements.

Less Material Needed in Production

LED lights can emit light in a specific direction, while incandescents and CFLs emit light in all directions. This means they must be built with extra material to direct their light.

LEDs don’t need this additional step in production.

Less material means fewer carbon emissions from their production. It also means less waste in the event a bulb must be discarded.

You’ll also get more light because of this. In other bulbs, half the light may never leave your bulb. With LEDs, you can see all the light they emit.

LED Bulbs Are Recyclable

LED light bulbs are made of non-toxic, recyclable material. However, not all regions will accept LED bulbs as recyclables.

Additionally, the recycling process can differ between regions. Research your area’s standards to see if you can recycle your LEDs.

Materials from LED bulbs can help create:

Windows (glass)

Wires (copper, aluminum, and gallium)

Sinks (aluminum and ceramics)

New LED bulbs (almost all of the old bulb’s materials)

New electronics (microchips)

The reason why not all regions recycle LEDs is simply that they’re a relatively new consumer product.

Remember, the first commercial LED light bulbs weren’t available until 1968. Therefore, not all recycling plants have the technology or ability to process them.

If your region doesn’t accept LEDs in recycling, you can try a mail-back program.

How To Recycle LED Light Bulbs

In most cases, you can’t recycle bulbs on your curbside like other materials.

Instead, you’ll probably have to use a municipal drop-off location or follow your community’s specific guidelines.

Removing the bulb to extract the usable material is an additional process. It’s more intensive than sorting cans and bottles.

Some big-box stores like Home Depot and IKEA may accept your old LED bulbs. Again, check your local store to see if the program is available in your area.

You can also find programs that recycle old LED Christmas light strings.

Are LED Lights Better Than CFLs?

When the Energy Independence and Security Act was signed in 2007, most people switched from incandescent to CFL (compact fluorescent) bulbs.

CFLs are comparatively better than incandescent bulbs, but LEDs are still the superior choice.

a bunch of CFL light bulbs on a table with a black background
CFL lights aren’t comparable with LEDs.

LED lights have a significantly longer lifespan than CFLs. You also may experience a short delay when you turn on a CFL. This is not an issue with LEDs.

LEDs are also much better for people with light sensitivities. CFL lights are notorious for causing headaches in sensitive people.

Furthermore, CFLs contain a small amount of mercury.

The amount of mercury in a CFL bulb is not usually enough to cause harm. However, it’s still recommended to leave the room for 15 minutes after a CFL bulb breaks before cleaning it up.

LED lights also only flicker as they age. Instead, they gradually get dimmer, which is much easier on the eyes.

If your LED bulb is flickering, that’s a sign you’re connecting it to an incompatible switch or faulty wiring. It’s not a symptom of age.


They may have been an accidental invention, but LEDs are the most energy-efficient electric light bulb.

Their wide color range and ability to dim smoothly make them attractive in homes and commercial buildings.

If solar-powered energy isn’t a realistic option for your home lighting system, LEDs are your best bet for creating a more environmentally-friendly home.


 Attainable Home: 15 Reasons Why Your Electric Bill Is So High | Attainable Home: Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs: 4 Ways To Tell If It’s Efficient | TCPI: Lighting History: What Came Before the LED Bulb? | Entergy: 6 Things You Didn’t Know About LEDs | Embedded Computer Design: The (Accidental) Invention of the LED

Radiance Energy: LED Light Bulbs: An Accidental Discovery? | The Franklin Institute: Edison’s Lightbulb | Electronics Notes: Captain H.J. Round | Nostalgic Bulbs: Incandescent Edison Bulbs – Two most asked questions | Ellumiglow: The History of Electroluminescence

 Science Direct: Electroluminescence | Thought Co.: LED: Light Emitting Diode | Energy Star: Learn About LED Lighting | HowStuffWorks: How LED Light Bulbs Work |  HowStuffWorks: How Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) Work | EPA: How the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 Affects Light Bulbs

 Green America: CFL vs. LED Lights: Which is the Energy Efficient Light Bulb? | Constellation: LED vs. CFL Bulbs: Which Is More Energy-Efficient? | Color Kinetics: What is an LED? | Michigan Department of Health and Human Services: CFLs & Mercury | Direct Energy CA: Guide to Choosing Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs

GB&D Magazine: 16 Benefits of LED Lighting | Square One: Why LED lighting is environmentally friendly and energy efficient | Energy Saver: LED Lighting | Finnley Electrical A.U.: Will low voltage damage LED lights? | Enviro Inc: Can LED Light Be Recycled And How To Do It?

 Earth 911: How to Recycle LED Light Bulbs | LampMaster: LED Recycling | Inline Electrical: What is the lifespan of an LED bulb or light fixture? | LED Lighting Info: Why Do My LED Lights Flicker And How To Stop It?

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