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Blue LED (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Last week a Japanese court awarded the inventor of the Blue LED or light emitting diode - you know those tiny lights like on the end of a key chain - over eight million dollars for his invention, a piddling amount for an invention worth about 600 million dollars. Why such a fuss over a blue light?

These LEDs may even end the 100 year reign of Edison's incandescent bulb. Although a wonder of the 19th century it's simply too inefficient for our age, giving off much of its energy as heat. Not true of the tiny LED that runs cold, plus, they will last nearly 100 times longer than a regular bulb.

All this was only promise, though, until a self-described "country boy", working at an obscure chemical company, made the key breakthrough. Not a country boy from Texas or Louisiana, but from Tokushima, Japan.

Shuji Nakamura knew that for years large electronics firms failed to make blue LEDs, but this didn't deter him. He worked for ten years, seven days a week, twelve hours a day to perfect a blue LED. His bosses complained, asking him to drop the project noting that the big players in the field couldn't even make one. Undeterred, Nakamura succeeded.

As a result of his work Nichia Chemical sold 580 million dollars worth of these blue LEDs - they, in turn, gave Nakamura a mere $165 bonus. And then he did a very UN-japanese thing: He sued his employer.

Japanese corporations rarely share profits or patent rights with their engineers and scientists. But last year a Japanese court ordered a food manufacturer to pay an inventor a million bucks, and it forced Hitachi to also shell out over a million to an engineer.

And on Monday the Tokyo High Court approved a settlement that paid Nakamura, the inventor the blue LED, a record 8.1 million dollars.

Don't read this yet as a great change: Mr. Nakamura wasn't satisfied with the amount, he wanted the 200 million awarded by a lower court, but when it was turned over on appeal his lawyer advised him to take the offer since the probability of winning the suit was "zero."

The biggest winner of all might be America. Mr. Nakamura now works at the University of California-Santa Barbara. And he advises Japanese scientists and engineers "to come to America, where their abilities are reflected in their income."

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises