Dimmer switch inventor's a hero in the lighting industry

Posted: April 17, 2013

SUPERSTARS are a dime a dozen in music and movies. But at the Lightfair International 2013 trade show, holding forth at the Pennsylvania Convention Center starting Sunday, all eyes will be on a soft-spoken octogenarian from the Lehigh Valley who'll make the rounds of exhibitor booths, taking in what's new, bright, more energy-efficient and life-enhancing in commercial and architectural lighting.

Lutron Electronics founder and chief executive Joel Spira is the elder statesman of the industry, the man who evolved the light switch from a mundane, strictly utilitarian tool to a sexy mood enhancer.

His big breakthrough as an inventor - the world's first solid-state dimmer - still holds the magical ability to, with the twist of a wrist, turn any room in your house, and every hotel, bar and restaurant just about anywhere, into a romantic getaway.

"We started in the dining room, pairing the dimmer with a chandelier," Spira relished retelling, in an interview. "Then we moved to the bedroom. Now dimmers are used all over the house. They're great to make a home look lived-in when you're away, useful when you have a bathroom call in the middle of the night and don't want to wake up your bedmate with a jolt of bright light."

Spira's breakthrough product also introduced the concept of saving energy and money by cutting output level and prolonging the life of lightbulbs. This was decades before oil prices and environmental-impact studies made energy efficiency a worldwide priority.

Spira and Lutron, headquartered in Coopersburg, also have pioneered dimmer tech to control fluorescent-tube fixtures, those corkscrew CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps) and the latest/greatest in LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs that will be all the buzz at Lightfair International.

$1 billion saved

Today, with 14,000 eco-friendly electrical products produced and sold worldwide, Lutron claims responsibility for saving more than $1 billion a year in reduced energy consumption - just in the United States. The company, which has 16 global sales offices, has found a worthy ally and supporter in local and state governments and federal agencies, who've made reducing power consumption and carbon footprint a priority, explained company president Michael Pessina, whether it's a school in Lower Merion or the fabled Empire State Building in New York City.

Besides dimmers, Lutron makes smart motion-detecting sensor switches that turn lights on and off when you walk in or exit a room. It makes smart ceiling-light controls that automatically dim bulbs when more natural light spills in the windows - a concept dubbed "energy harvesting."

"Our research has found you can cut artificial illumination by as much as 50 percent without affecting comfort levels and work performance," said Spira. Even skeptics at the New York Times, another Lutron client, have seen the light.

Also way cool: Lutron has developed nifty Serena remote-control window shades that can be user-installed in 20 minutes and programmed to self-adjust for natural-light availability and to maintain room temperature.

Automating the home

An admitted control freak, with many a patent to his name in wireless communications and power electronics, Joel Spira also qualifies as a kingpin in the more encompassing home-automation industry.

Helping to bring bachelor-pad fantasies to life with the push of a button or tap of a tablet or smartphone screen, Lutron controls integrate nicely with products from the likes of Honeywell and alarm.com to open a garage door, flash all the house lights when a burglar alarm is triggered, alter the home temperature, activate small appliances or set the right ambience when it's showtime in your home theater.

The company is introducing "cloud-based" controls for this stuff that should reduce the amount and complexity of programming needed to run your personal thrill show. Right now, Lutron-trained custom installers usually handle the whole-house setups, which cost at least $10,000.

And with Lutron's latest generations of Radio Ra2 and HomeWorks QS wireless-control tech - for which the FCC awarded Lutron a dedicated smidgen of the low-power radio-frequency spectrum - Spira and company make it easy to actualize huge energy savings even in old buildings like the Empire State, "where it would cost a fortune just to pull new control wiring through the walls," said Susan Hakkarainen, Lutron's vice president of marketing and communications, and the boss' daughter.

Other standards exist for power-control gear (remember X-10?), but "none are as stable as ours" or as devoted to quality control, Spira said of his still privately held company.

Philly-based master electrician John Siemiarowski testifies that "there's never an issue with returning a Lutron switch that's gone funky, no matter how old."

Dim the lights . . .

The Lutron story begins in the 1950s when Spira, fresh out of the physics program at Purdue, was working for a defense contractor by day "and not getting much sleep at night, because of it."

His work assignment was to create the trigger mechanism for "small-yield tactical A-bombs" designed to ride in guided missiles. But Spira soon concluded that there had to be a healthier use for a new, solid-state switching device he'd sourced from GE.

"There were dimmers already, invented and used for theatrical stage lighting, but they were big, expensive things with rheostats that buzzed and threw away lots of electricity," Spira shared on my visit to Lutron world headquarters, just a short hop up the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Northeast extension. That's also where Spira has his surprising sideline business, Subarashii Kudamono, the largest producer of Asian pears in the United States.

Spira started working on his home-oriented dimmer in the spare bedroom of the New York apartment he shared with his wife, Ruth. "It was supposed to be our baby's room, but this baby came first," he joked.

Spira then moved the project to the Lehigh Valley and a 1,000-square-foot lab space he ran independently within the walls of Rodale Electronics, a business operated by Ruth's dad, J.I. Rodale, and uncle, Joe Rodale.

Yeah, before he became the guru of organic gardening and otherwise healthful living, J.I. Rodale made and sold parts to electrical contractors. Profits from the spin-off of that business (now called Square D) fueled Rodale books and publications such as Prevention Magazine and Organic Gardening.

They'll take romance

Although Joel Spira filed his patent for the world's first solid-state dimmer in 1959, it wasn't until the late '60s that the Capri by Lutron, a "light balance" continuous electronic dimmer switch, was ready for mass marketing, introduced first at E.J. Korvette discount department stores.

Early advertising materials, now part of a Smithsonian Museum collection of Lutron "firsts," tout the concept of "dialing romance" by lowering the lights. Although new tech is often thought of as a "guy thing," Spira recalled that "women were the first to embrace our light dimmer in big numbers. It has a kind of rosy glow to it. Dimming the lights makes you look more attractive. It's romantic."

Blog: philly.com/GizmoGuy

Online: ph.ly/Tech

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