Mood Lighting Gets Its Day in the Spotlight

Posted May 10, 2010 at 4:15pm

It’s a device that can be thanked for many a romantic evening. Although the words “dimmer switch” may conjure up images of an intimate evening suffused with the glow of electric candlelight, a new donation to the National Museum of American History demonstrates that, in truth, the dimmer switch turned out to be kind of a big deal. In fact, dimmer switches have played a large role in the evolution of lighting technology.

In 1959, Joel Spira developed a solid-state “dimmer” device as a way to make the incandescent light bulb in his New York apartment last longer. That invention laid the groundwork for his founding of Lutron Electronics in 1961. Under his guidance, the company became a leading innovator in developing new lighting technology, enough so that the National Museum of American History requested that he donate several items chronicling Lutron’s evolution to supplement the museum’s Electricity Collection.

The jewel of the collection is an early version of the 1965 Capri dimmer, mounted on a cardboard display case bearing a cartoon image of an elegant woman in a violet dress. Also included are subsequent models tracing the development of lighting control technology, including a sleek white Skylark Eco-Dim model from 2010, and Spira’s faded brown inventor’s notebook. The Lutron pieces will join other artifacts such as experimental light bulbs created by Thomas Edison and theatrical lighting controls from the 1920s.

“In 83 years, I didn’t think I’d be donating items to the Smithsonian Institution, and it’s humbling to see items like my inventor’s notebook — it’s a ratty thing,” Spira said at a recent donation ceremony announcing the acquisition.

The dimmer switch represents an early stage of lighting-control technology, the underlying purpose of which is to conserve energy. Spira cited the recently remodeled New York Times Building as an example of cutting-edge lighting-control technology. There, a centrally controlled network of lights adjusts lighting levels throughout the building and allows the overall level of lighting to be reduced by up to 70 percent.

The result of more efficient lighting has financial and environmental effects. Spira estimated that a far-reaching installation of dimming systems could save up to a billion dollars a year in energy bills and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in producing electricity by as much as 25 billion tons. He said systems like the one in the New York Times Building, where every aspect of a structure’s electricity output — whether heating, lighting or routers — is controlled centrally, could save “perhaps 20 times what we do now.”

Hal Wallace, associate curator for the Electricity Collection, said there was a “sense of awe and wonder” when people first came into contact with electric lights in the early part of the 20th century. Now, he said, the advent of new technology such as centralized lighting-control systems and more efficient LED, or light-emitting diodes, have raised the stakes.

“Changing capabilities breed changing expectations,” Wallace said. “It’s no longer enough to turn on a light — now we need to control the level of that lighting.”

During the donation ceremony before a packed room of journalists and museum curators, Spira was demure in describing Lutron’s accomplishments, but he still displayed a sharp sense of humor. He began his remarks by noting that Lutron has “been doing pretty well with romance and saving energy over the last 50-odd years,” prompting his wife to shout from the audience, “I’ll vouch for that!”

The collection will remain as part of the museum’s permanent collection.