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Lutron: Mastering Light with Joel Spira

Every artist should know the importance of lighting in their art, more so if you are a lighting artist who manipulates light to create spectacular pieces of work. For many of us working in the creative industry, we interact and manipulate lighting on a daily basis. Artist, cinematographers, photographers, interior designers, architects and etc. all work with light throughout the course of their work. While Thomas Edison invented the electrical light bulb, it was someone else who allowed us to truly manipulate light in our daily lives. Let us take you on a ride back in time and introduce to you the person which enabled all of us to become ‘light benders’.

An unhealthy obsession with manipulating light

Joel Spira was a young physicist who was obsessed with manipulating light. In a makeshift lab in his apartment’s spare room, he toyed with light bulbs and laboured to realise his vision: a light bulb that could be dimmed. Little did he know, he would create the illumination empire today that is Lutron.

Fascination, awe and perhaps an unhealthy obsession were the key ingredients for revolutionary breakthroughs in this man’s life — just like that of any inventor or artist throughout history. Spira was simply fascinated by the concept of light and how he could manipulate it. When he came up with his device, the idea of being able to increase or decrease the intensity of light in one’s home was a far-fetched idea. Controlling light wasn’t just expensive, but an extremely complicated process and was limited to theatre stage lights. This was because the ordinary theatre light dimmers used a rheostat, which converted electricity into heat energy rather than light to change the intensity. This gave the illusion the light was getting brighter, or dimmed down with each change of scene.

Now, even if you had the resources that you need to find yourself a rheostat back in the day to add to the vibe of a good party,, doing so was simply not feasible. It was not only expensive, but the installation process was quite complicated and hard to get right.

But, it all changed in 1959, when Spira revolutionized the solid-state dimmer.

lutron founder joel spira
Joel Spira catching a break in his younger days

Progress and Evolution

Spira was always driven by progress. Already fascinated by the concept of manipulating light, he set on his mission to introduce a light dimmer that was small and simple. His invention was progressive. It was small and simple enough that it could be installed in a standard residential wallbox, essentially replacing the light switch. Another great thing about using this transistor was that it generated less amount of heat and keeping cooling issues in warm areas at bay.

Spira achieved this by replacing the traditional rheostat, used to dim stage lights in theatre productions and replacing it with a thyristor. Now, quite unlike the rheostat, a thyristor is a type of transistor, which was a relatively new invention when Spira was tinkering away in his makeshift lab in his New York City home. The substitution was relatively really small in nature, but its effect, remarkable. A thyristor, unlike a rheostat, simply stops power flow into the lamp, which in-turn reduces the production of light energy.

Dimmers are also extremely practical to use in a domestic setting. You can not only save ample amount of energy, but you can also lower your energy consumption. Since energy costs were sky-rocketing even back in the day, Spira’s invention was nothing short of a miracle in the age of revolution.

Light Meters & Dimmers: Lighting up a New Industry

C 600 WH hi - Lutron: Mastering Light with Joel Spira
Lutron’s modern dimmer designs

Not only the energy saving aspect of dimmers based on thyristors make for an appealing future, but when Joel Spira came up with the idea, he didn’t have a clue that his invention could turn out to be an integral part of society. From museums, to art galleries, from restaurants to clubs, light dimmers do plenty to enhance up the vibe of the place.

Times have changed and Spira invention has turned from something rather we take for granted. The simple rotary switch Spira came up with early in the day still graces the walls of domestic dining rooms across various parts of America. But, regardless of change and improvement that came with time, the original rotary switch laid the stepping stone for the present lighting control industry and the world hasn’t been the same every since.

Eventually, Spira decided to take things to the next level and start a company, Lutron Electronics. With more than 700 worldwide patents to his name, Spira was responsible for the invention of the first electronic dimming ballast used in fluorescent lights. Furthermore, he also invented the a self-contained lighting control system that is being widely used and applied. Spira, through Lutron was not only able to sell, get investors and make profit off of his solid-state dimmers but also linked dimmers and under inventions that came under the umbrella of his company, including the motorized window shades.

lutron electronics

Lutron Light Meters

The emergence of light dimming technologies gave birth to another supplementary demand — the need to measure light. This new demand gave birth to Lutron Electronic Enterprise Co., Ltd, a Taiwan-based manufacturer in Test & Measurement instruments. This newer company has zero affiliation with the one started by Joel Spira and I guess it was perhaps named as such in reverence to the contributions made by the late Joel Spira. They are very well-known in the industrial market for their affordably priced and decent quality lutron light meters.

The illumination industry is huge: from big fancy hotels to retail outlets, light control systems can be found almost everywhere from majestic palaces to museums and art galleries.

light installation art
example of a light installation art at the Singapore Night Festival. for illustration purposes only

The difference between an exceptional lighting artist and a mediocre one lies in their attention to detail. Lighting design or rather illumination design is important across many creative industries like media, arts, architecture, interior design and etc. Light installation art, especially moving light installations, require mastery of lighting to the highest degree. And it is no wonder why many established light installation artists and photographers I know use a light meter.

How do you manipulate light if you can’t measure it?

The bro-tip

If you are ever in the market to buy lutron light meters or other measuring instruments, you can purchase them for yourself or your company on eezee.sg. They have a huge array of reasonably priced industrial products, they also offer volume-pricing plus you can generate quotations instantly for your convenience.