Bringing the solid-state dimmer to American homes was a triumph that unleashed a world of possibilities for the lighting industry. And we have one man to thank: Joel Spira, great American inventor, physicist, entrepreneur, and proud Navy veteran.
Soon after inventing the first solid-state dimmer for use in American homes, Joel and his wife Ruth founded Lutron Electronics in 1961. The rest is history.
Today we take a trip back in time to the days of the first solid-state dimmer. In honor of Joel Spira’s legacy, we’ll also learn more about the man behind the invention. This article was adapted based on historical documents from Lutron, an EC&M article, and a New York Times feature by Bruce Weber.
The Early Days
In the early ‘20s, New York City was a magical place. Back then, you could buy a pound of coffee for 15 cents and a loaf of bread for 12 cents. Skyscrapers began dueling higher and higher across The Big Apple’s famed skyline, and many flocked to the city in search of wealth, glamor, and prosperity. It’s the place that Joel Spira, Founder of Lutron, called home.
According to the New York Times, Joel Spira was born in Brooklyn in 1927 and raised by a fashion model mother and an executive father. With the right combination of encouragement and opportunity, Joel grew up to be a highly successful physicist, inventor, and entrepreneur.
In the words of EC&M’s Ellen Parson, Spira’s fascination with the physics of light “…led to a lifetime of invention, research, development, and innovation in the lighting industry.”
A Lighting Legend In The Making
During his service in the Navy in WWII, Spira learned of a device used for secret radars: the silicon controlled rectifier (SCR). Spira was intrigued with the capabilities this device offered for controlling electrical power, and he wondered how this technology might be used to dim and control lighting.
While Spira knew dimmer technology already existed, the options were too bulky for use in homes. In search of more readily available dimming options, he shrank this technology to fit into a wallbox that would dim a regular light bulb. This was a true “light bulb” moment for Spira, in every sense of the word.
After a series of tests, experiments, and patents, Spira created a solid-state dimmer that was small enough for use in the average American home.
Joel Spira’s goal was to save electrical energy and extend the life of the incandescent bulb—and he succeeded. Hot on the heels of this discovery, Joel and his wife Ruth began producing lighting controllers through their company, Lutron Electronics.
In the early days, the most brilliant inventors didn’t need a factory or a team of engineers. All Joel Spira needed was an idea and a spare bedroom in his New York City apartment. Below is a photo of his early testing facility, straight from Lutron’s photo archives.
The First Solid-State Dimmer
In the early ‘60s, Joel Spira commercialized the original dimmer, the Capri. Revolutionary in its heyday, the Capri is now a relic in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, right alongside artifacts from Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. (EC&M: Lutron Electronics Donates Company History to Smithsonian)
The original Capri (pictured below) was a fully functional dimmer that measured 18 inches tall and offered “exquisite lighting moods for every room in the house.” In the now-historic Capri sales sheet, two women pondered the idea while leisurely sipping coffee and smoking.
Lutron Today: The Future Isn’t Getting Dimmer
Built on an idea and a dream, Lutron now operates in over 100 countries. From dimmers to switches, receptacles, occupancy sensors, and wireless controls, Lutron’s lighting and control solutions deliver the efficiency and performance that today’s homeowners, electrical contractors, and business owners demand.
According to The New York Times and The Morning Call, before his passing on April 8, 2015, Joel Spira shared these words in a rare interview: “Someday I’ll be gone, but dimmers will be with us forever,” he said.
Who knows what the future of lighting will bring? With the legacy that Spira created, the possibilities are endless.
Over to You
As National Market Manager at Graybar, Todd’s goal is to find the best products and solutions to help contractors work more efficiently, stay safe on the job, and win more productive and profitable business.
Sources & Credits
CE Pro: Joel Spira, Lutron Founder, Lighting Control Pioneer and Prolific Inventor, Dies at 88
The New York Times: Joel Spira, Physicist Who Softened the Lights in Homes Everywhere, Dies at 88
The Morning Call: Lutron’s Joel Spira: An illuminating career
Lutron: 50 years of history and innovation
Market Wired: In Memoriam: Lutron Chairman and Founder Joel Spira
EC&M: Lutron Electronics Donates Company History to Smithsonian
The Technology Integrator: Lutron Donates Collection to Smithsonian
Wikipedia: Joel Spira (businessman)