Illuminating Career For Lighting Chief


When the war ended, Spira returned to Purdue and earned a degree in physics. He worked for various companies on defense projects, including guided missiles and nuclear war planning. Spira got the idea for his dimmer switch while working on a fuse mechanism for atomic bombs.

On the project, he worked with a small semiconductor the size of a fingernail that could control large amounts of energy. A photographer fascinated with light manipulation, he wondered if he could design a similar product to control lights.

“I tried it at home and guess what? It worked,” Spira said.

Previous dimmers were large and costly, limiting their use mostly to professionals. They dimmed lights by absorbing energy, which generated a lot of heat. Spira developed a switch that interrupted the energy flowing to the lights. The result was a smaller switch that could fit in a standard wall box and also used less energy.

He tinkered with his invention for a year or two, and then quit his job to start Lutron in 1961.

Initially, the dimmers were sold as upgrades for chandeliers in dining rooms. Spira got a deal on some fancy perfume boxes from a New York box-manufacturer for the dimmer packaging.
The company’s early sales materials featured two photos of the same woman. In one, she’s dressed casually, standing beneath bright lights holding a cup of coffee. In the other, she is dressed elegantly with make-up and earrings, a cigarette holder in hand, standing in a dimly lit room.

Behind her in each photo is the signature round knob of Lutron’s Capri dimmer switch. The slogan above the photos reads: “Lighting to live by.” Mood lighting was the pitch, and people started buying.

For the first several years, the company made the switches in space provided by Rodale Manufacturing, which made electrical wiring devices. The late J.I. Rodale, patriarch of the Rodale family publishing business in Emmaus, was Spira’s father-in-law. Spira married Ruth, Rodale’s daughter, who introduced him to the Lehigh Valley.

With 60 million homes in the United States at the time and more being built, Spira saw a robust market for dimmer switches. The start-up grew and relocated to its current headquarters in Upper Saucon in 1970.

Spira recalled a time when the company got a customized order from Cary Grant, who wanted dimmers with white knobs for his house. The company’s dimmers had beige knobs at the time. Word of the Hollywood heartthrob’s order spread through the plant, and the company had to stop production to let the enthusiasm settle, Spira said.

“All the ladies on the production line, there was constant buzz,” Spira said smiling. “It was a tiny order, but it shut us down for a while.”

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Posted by on Nov 1st, 2012 and filed under American Street Guide. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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