Born March 1, 1927 in New York and raised in Brooklyn, Joel Spira has always been fascinated with light — the physics behind it, its psychological and emotional effects on people, and its informational characteristics. This ongoing fascination led to a lifetime of invention, research, development, and innovation in the lighting industry.

After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Spira (Photo 1) attended Purdue University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in physics in 1948. The new graduate developed a way to reduce the light output of an incandescent bulb in his New York apartment in the late 1950s (Photo 2), which extended the life of the light bulb and saved electrical energy (see “The Early Years”). Soon thereafter, he and his wife, Ruth Rodale Spira, founded Lutron Electronics in 1961.

Almost half a century later on April 29, 2010, Spira, inventor and developer of the solid-state electronic “dimming device,” celebrated another milestone in his prolific career. Joined by his family, many Lutron employees and colleagues, friends, and members of the press, Spira donated materials related to his company’s 50-year history to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in a special ceremony.

Hosting more than 4.5 million visitors annually and showcasing more than 3 million objects, the National Museum of American History is home to a Samuel Morse telegraph, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Archie Bunker’s chair, an Alexander Graham Bell telephone, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, and Duke Ellington’s sheet music — to name just a few famous items on display. Considering the museum’s renewed mission of “Shining New Light on American History” — a theme that showcases pieces of history committed to telling the story of invention — Lutron’s donation to the museum’s Electricity Collection (see “The Electricity Collection”), which is expected to be completed in the next few years, seemed uniquely significant.

“As the nation’s history museum, we tell the story of this country in all its depth and breadth,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “Collections such as this one from Lutron help us to understand the continuation of the electrical evolution, the process of invention, and the history of business and manufacture.”

According to Hal Wallace, associate curator of the museum’s Electricity Collection, American homes changed significantly during the 20th century as people adopted electricity for any number of tasks, including illumination. “Objects such as those being donated by Lutron fit in nicely with the switches and control devices we preserve that date back to Edison’s day,” he said. “Studying the tools of everyday life, such as light switches, helps us to understand our ever-changing technological society.”

During the selection process, the museum requested objects and papers that would provide insight into Spira’s career as an inventor. The donation included an early version of the original solid-state (devices using transistors) Capri dimmer (Photo 3), manufactured by Lutron in September 1964. Also part of the donation was a retail display featuring the fully functional dimmer and other Lutron dimmers and lighting-control systems that show lighting-control developments at the company over the past 50 years. Of particular interest was Spira’s original inventor’s notebook (Photo 4), featuring more than 100 pages of handwritten documentation, historic photographs, and product advertisements (Photo 5 and Photo 6). The Lutron materials will join other artifacts in the Electrical Collection, such as experimental light bulbs from Thomas Edison, dimming light sockets from the 1910s, theatrical lighting controls from the 1920s, and numerous types of light switches.

“I am pleased to donate these artifacts to the museum,” said Spira. “For the past 50 years, the solid-state dimmer has made homes more beautiful and offices more efficient — all while saving energy and increasing lamp life. It is an honor for me to be in the company of Edison and others in this collection. I am truly humbled.”

Following an opening speech by Glass, remarks from Wallace on the development and significance of the Electricity Collection, and an address from Charlie Dent (U.S. Congressman for the 15th district of the House of Representatives), Spira captivated the audience with a walk down memory lane, highlighting monumental moments in his personal and professional life during the last 83 years.

Reiterating the fact that history is about people, not just products, Glass reminded attendees at the luncheon ceremony that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is in what he calls the “forever” business. “What will people of the future want to know about us today?” Glass asked the group.

After hearing Spira’s firsthand accounts of his company’s past, present, and future as well as taking a look at the electrical innovations on display, there’s no doubt the Lutron legacy will provide a telling glimpse into the lives and priorities of people during this time and their fascination with light.

The Early Days

After someone showed him a solid-state device called a silicon-controlled rectifier (SCR), which is about the size of a large pea, Joel Spira, chairman and founder of Lutron Electronics, immediately became intrigued. The SCR worked by chopping out a varying portion of the 60-cycle sine wave. While in the Navy during World War II, Spira had a device for secret radars that performed the same function as the SCR but was much larger — about the size of a milk carton. He was struck by this device’s capability for controlling electrical power.

It became apparent to Spira that he could put this new device in a wallbox for an ordinary light switch and thereby dim an ordinary light bulb. Even better, dimming the light bulb would save electrical energy costs. Although there were already products on the market that could dim light bulbs, they were about the size of a breadbox and not used by many people. It was this combination of technology, the physics of light, the idea of comfort control, and enhancing the home environment that started Spira on his quest for more sophisticated lighting control. After testing his idea, he received his first dimming device patent on May 1, 1962.

The Electricity Collection

Established within the Smithsonian in 1896, the Electricity Collection documents, preserves, and presents the history of electrical science and many electrical technologies. Through research and holdings, the department seeks to convey a better understanding of the changes to society stemming from the invention and adoption of electrical devices. The collection focuses primarily on the story of electrical science and technology in American history, while also recognizing the international nature of this topic.

The Electricity Collection consists of more than 25,000 objects organized into three areas: electrical science (including electrostatics and magnetism), electrical power (generation, transmission, lighting, and appliances), and electrical communications (telegraphy, telephony, radio, television, and magnetic recording). Later additions include microwave devices, lasers, holography, and microelectronics.

The Electricity Collection is part of the Museum’s Division of Work & Industry — artifacts, documents, photographs, and oral histories that relate to work and industry in the United States, with a focus on agriculture, natural resources, timekeeping, retail, mining, engineering, electricity, telephone, telegraphy, industry, and transportation.