Flashback: Lutron’s Joel Spira Recalls Invention of the Lighting Dimmer

No doubt the invention of the electronic solid-state lighting dimmer is a watershed moment for the industry, but it didn’t come easy. Indeed, Lutron founder Joel Spira recalled he burned out one $300 power transistor per day over the course of months during his experimentation to create the electronic dimming ballast.

“I put it into the circuit and ‘bang,’ it died. I was a little vexed by this so I didn’t do anything for the whole day trying to figure out what I did wrong. So the next day I tried it again and after an hour it died. There were six solid months during which every day I burned out a $300 transistor. But I only burned out one a day because we couldn’t afford any more.”

That is just one of the historical nuggets from the archives of CE Pro when Spira sat down with us back in April 2010 on the eve of donating some of his early documentation and products to the Electricity Collection of the National History Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

Spira reminisced with CE Pro on his early achievements and failures in developing dimming technology prior to earning his first patent on a dimming device back on May 1, 1962. Spira, along with his wife Ruth Rodale Spira, founded Lutron Electronics in 1961.

“An engineer’s life is full of junk… most of it is junk because it doesn’t work,” he chuckled, noting that he had so many experiments that didn’t work that he can’t recall them.

He recalled that when he first invented the Lutron dimmer, he looked at the number of households in the United States and said to himself, “Gee… this could be a reasonable business.”

Nearly 50 years after inventing the first solid-state electronic dimming device at Lutron, Spira donated his notebooks and other materials to the Smithsonian with his family, friends, and Lutron employees there for the ceremony.

The Lutron materials now are housed in the museum’s Electricity Collection, which documents, preserves, and presents the history of electrical science and many electrical technologies.

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The Electricity Collection consists of more than 25,000 objects and is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Joel Spira died in April 2015 at the age of 88. Ruth Spira passed away in September 2019 at the age of 90.

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