Lutron Donates Collection to Smithsonian
The trove includes the original "dimming device" that launched a lighting-control revolution.
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 5/7/2010 12:00:00 AM
Few inventors can say they revolutionized interior lighting, cut energy consumption, and made people look and feel sexier—all with a single device.
Joel Spira can.
He’s the inventor and developer of the dimmer switch—the iconic gold knob that has graced countless dining room walls since the 1960’s. In a special ceremony on April 29, the chairman and founder of Pennsylvania-based Lutron Electronics donated a trove of materials related to the company’s 50-year history to the electricity collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
Appropriately, the chandeliers were dimmed in a private reception suite of the museum as the 83-year-old Spira officially signed the deed of donation. Spira then recounted how he got his start designing missile control switches during World War II. He turned the guest bedroom of his apartment in New York into a workshop, and by 1961 he’d perfected the dimming prototype. Until then, such devices were clunky and mechanical; Spira’s was electronic, reliable, and could fit inside a wall box.
Spira’s ability to think outside the box, or rather to focus on the box, made all the difference. The box maker he contracted to package the dimmer had a batch of gold foil paper left over from a job for a cosmetics client. Spira snatched it up “for a great price” and added the name “Capri” in red lettering. “It looked altogether different from electrical boxes—like a jewel,” he said. “Then we got the idea of hooking it up to chandeliers in the dining room.”
The device made any space more flexible, offering a full, uninterrupted range of light from full intensity to a soft, warm “electronic candlelight.” Spira’s true genius was marketing the sex appeal of mood lighting. One ad features two side-by-side shots of a woman: the first as a perky housewife holding a teacup in full light, and the second as a bejeweled flirt brandishing a cigarette holder in dimmed light.
He cites energy savings as one of Lutron’s greatest contributions to society. Lutron estimates that the installed base of its products saves the U.S. nearly 10 billion kilowatt hours of electricity (approximately $1 billion) a year in utility costs. “That’s the equivalent output of several large coal or nuclear-fired power plants,” he said.
Today, the global company manufactures more than 11,000 products, from the simple-to-install single light dimmers to sophisticated dimming systems that orchestrate a home or building’s total lighting environment, inside and out, to automated shade and drapery-control systems.
The Smithsonian donation includes an early version of the original solid-state electronic Capri dimmer, displays featuring the fully functional dimmer, and other early models of Lutron dimmers and lighting-control systems. The donated documents include Spira’s original inventor’s notebook with more than 100 pages of handwritten documentation and historical photographs, brochures, product designs, and advertisements.
The dual-woman ad promised that the Capri would “add a new dimension to each of your lovely rooms…as important to your enjoyment of today’s living as Hi-Fidelity music and air conditioning.”
“All I can say is we’ve been doing our part to help save electricity—and romance—for the past 50 years,” Spira concluded.