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A Light Bulb Moment: How The Dimmer Switch Set Lusts Ablaze

An early ad for the dimmer switch. We can neither confirm nor disconfirm whether any double entendres were intended.
Courtesy of Lutron Electronics
An early ad for the dimmer switch. We can neither confirm nor disconfirm whether any double entendres were intended.

Perhaps it's only natural that inventor Joel Spira had an eye for aesthetics. His mother was a knockout, a model in New York City; his sister eventually went into the art world. In short, Spira came from a family of lookers — in more than one sense of the word.

The men around him were no slouches either: His father earned a seat on the state liquor board, while his father-in-law started an electronics company, then a giant magazine publishing business.

"There has always been this right brain/left brain — the arts and the sciences — in our family," says Spira's daughter, Susan Hakkarainen. "Very Bauhaus."

It was in 1959, tinkering in his Manhattan apartment, that Spira came up with a device that helped change the very way humans see each other: the dimmer switch. It was a new type of transistor that dramatically shrunk the hardware required to lower the lights.

Spira grabbed a patent and formed Lutron Electronics, which is still based in Coopersburg, Penn. The company called its dimmer the Capri.

And Lutron didn't market the Capri to electricians or contractors. Instead, Spira wanted to appeal to a different audience: women — wives interested in perhaps generating a little extra spice at home. Picture Mad Men's Betty Draper, bored in the suburbs.

Take, for instance, one of the early promotional photos: On one side, a stay-at-home mom sips coffee under bright lights — but when they get dimmed, out comes a domestic goddess, with a half-acre of decolletage on display and a face burning with desire.

Hakkarainan says every detail of the ad campaign was considered, right down to the packaging.

"He was looking for a box that was attractive, and he found that a company did an overrun of perfume boxes," Hakkarainan says. "This box manufacturer had these beautiful perfume boxes. And he said, 'You know what, I'll take these off your hands, and just print my name on it.' These were beautiful boxes, when everyone else was doing industrial boxes."

Along with the nice boxes, he set up displays in New York department stores like E.J. Korvettes, so women could experience the dial for themselves.

"The theme in the early days was 'Dial romance,' " says Michael Pessina, the current president of Lutron.

Pessina says the Don Draper-style campaign was built around the idea that kids could still do their homework after school at the dining room table. But, once they were safely tucked in, the adults could ponder making more kids at the turn of a knob.

"Because there's nothing more romantic than that beautiful flicker of a candlelight," Pessina says. "And the dimming technology could allow that to happen. So any light, for any need or use of the space. And the dining room was a nice place for that."

The dimmer soon expanded beyond the dining room and into the living room, and eventually the bedroom. It gave these spaces access to the secrets of Hollywood lighting designers. The low light softens hard edges, wayward hairs, the bags under our eyes; it glances off surfaces, rather than spotlighting them.

Today, Lutron manufactures thousands of other products, and Joel Spira's name is on hundreds of patents. But he'll be forever remembered for the dimmer. In 2010, the original was added to the Smithsonian's collection.

Michael Pessina joined Spira at the unveiling.

The face of an unabashed romantic: Joel Spira, in his later years.
/ Courtesy of Lutron Electronics
Courtesy of Lutron Electronics
The face of an unabashed romantic: Joel Spira, in his later years.

"As they took the shroud off the case, there was one of Alexander Graham Bell's original telegraphs, there was a Thomas Edison light bulb and there was Joel Spira's light dimmer, first notebook and original prototype," Pessina says. "And I looked at him, and he couldn't say a word."

Spira was still the face of the company when he passed away in April of this year at the age of 88. He's survived by his wife of six decades, Ruth, and their three daughters, including Susan.

The first line of his obituary in The New York Times said he was a man who, "changed the ambiance of homes around the world and encouraged romantic seductions of all types."

"He would have been tickled pink with that. Because I'll tell you, their code names for each other, which has never been told publicly, is 'Big Ben' and 'Ruby Begonia.' They were old time movie references, but they would sign birthday cards to each other, and Valentine cards, so they were always romantic, and we would always get from my father, all of us daughters, we would always get chocolates on Valentine's Day 'from your secret admirer.' "

Chocolates, love notes, nicknames — this guy was smooth, and with his invention, the rest of us could feel a little smoother, too.

Copyright 2015 WHYY

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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