Dimmer-switch pioneer preps for transition

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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.

Mr. 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. Mr. 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 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.

The private company does not disclose revenue figures. It won't even release the number of people it employs. The Morning Call estimates the company has about 1,100 employees locally, based on outside sources. It also has operations in Europe and Asia.

In a rare interview, the reserved businessman discussed his life, his company and his legacy.

"Someday I'll be gone," said Mr. Spira, who continues to head the company. "But dimmers will be with us forever."

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.

Mr. Spira realized that what worked in dining rooms could be applied to entire buildings, banquet halls and monuments. Lighting makes up a bigger share of energy costs in commercial buildings than in homes, so he developed products to dim fluorescent lights.

Despite the energy savings offered by light controls, most buildings don't have them. Only 14 percent of residential and 30 percent of commercial buildings have dimmers, motion sensors or other technology to reduce electric costs associated with lighting, according to a January report by the U.S. Department of Energy.

That means there's still a huge market for companies like Lutron even if construction of buildings is slow.

Lutron has not been immune to the downturn. Due to the construction slowdown and the Great Recession, the company postponed a significant expansion that would have added 500 jobs and doubled the building space at its headquarters, along with adding a parking deck.

Mr. Spira could have sold the company years ago and lived quite comfortably off the proceeds. But he has no plans to sell. Instead, Lutron is planning for transition.

While the Spira family works on a transition plan, Lutron continues marketing products that make homes and commercial buildings more efficient. Its systems can detect the amount of daylight entering a room and even the position of the sun to adjust shades and lights accordingly. The systems are wireless to ease installation, with low energy consumption so batteries that power them last years.

Homes will continue to get smarter and more efficient, Mr. Spira said.

"We started out making a dimmer for someone's dining room," he said. "Now we can control whole houses and whole office buildings. We are only limited by our imaginations."

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