By Spencer Soper
ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Joel Spira revolutionized the home-lighting industry more than 50 years ago by inventing a light switch that made a dramatic feature once limited mostly to theaters – dimming – accessible to every home.
Created in the spare bedroom of his Brooklyn apartment, it was also the product that launched Lutron Electronics. The Upper Saucon Township company is now a vast, global enterprise with thousands of products that can control lights and temperatures in homes and buildings of all sizes.
Lutron products help illuminate prominent landmarks around the world, including the Statue of Liberty in New York, Windsor Castle in the United Kingdom and the Bank of China headquarters in Beijing. And the company still makes low-cost dimmer switches that a do-it-yourselfer can easily install at home.
Spira, 85, is low-key about his success, which close friends and associates say befits his humble nature and helps explain the company’s understated image. Within the lighting industry, Lutron is known as a premier manufacturer. Spira’s technological innovations are on display in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in the company of inventions by Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
Most people, however, have probably dimmed dining rooms by turning a knob without realizing where the switch was made or knowing about the personality behind the product. Even in the Lehigh Valley, where the company is one of the biggest, oldest and most stable employers, Lutron and its founder maintain a low profile. Its headquarters are tucked behind a hill in a neighborhood of cornfields and golf courses off Route 309.
In a rare interview, the reserved businessman discussed his life, his company and his legacy.
“Someday I’ll be gone,” said Spira, of Springfield Township, Bucks County, who continues to head the company. “But dimmers will be with us forever.”
A MAJOR BREAKTHROUGH
Spira has always been inquisitive. As a boy, he spent free time at the library reading about airplanes and dreamed of becoming an aeronautical engineer. He graduated from high school at 16 and was off to Purdue University in Indiana, where he studied physics.
At age 18, Spira put his studies on hold to enlist in the Navy during World War II. He was recruited to work on a secret project that used radio waves, or radar, to detect the enemy. The project gave him exposure to electronics and designing large, complex systems. It also introduced him to technologies the company uses today in its motion-sensing light switches.
“It changed my life entirely,” Spira said.1 2 3 4 next >>
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