The True Story of the Man Who Invented the Dimmer

Uncle Joel

One of the many things we take for granted these days—our ability to dim the lights to create a romantic mood or the perfect dinner party ambiance—was once a dream in the mind of my uncle.

I am blessed to come from an interesting family, and my uncle Joel Spira, founder and CEO of Lutron, was one of the most interesting of all. You can read the New York Times obit for more about his legacy, but I will offer you a different kind of story, the kind that only family can. Don’t worry; there will be no sordid details, just a peek into the world of a man who would invent the dimmer and then go on to build one of the largest lighting companies in the world.

For me, it starts with music. When I was little, my Uncle Joel and Aunt Ruth (my father’s sister) lived on the same farm we did, and every Sunday morning, we would hear loud opera music wafting down the hill from their open windows. My mother complained. My father ignored her complaints. But I thought it was the most magical thing I had ever heard. A summer Sunday morning, playing on the farm, with a dramatic, romantic soundtrack—what more could a little girl want?

And then there were his outfits. I have a true soft spot for a man in a white dinner jacket. Or a man in a checkered shirt. Pardon me, current-day Brooklynites, but Uncle Joel (who was born and raised in Brooklyn) was wearing checkered shirts back in 1962—which is when I first noticed, since that’s when I was born. And the white dinner jacket? Not many men have the courage to wear one. Even fewer wear one well. Uncle Joel could rock a room in a white dinner jacket. I still have it on my bucket list to go out with a man in a white dinner jacket. Universe, take note.

But the real story was revealed at his recent funeral—like a puzzle I knew by pieces but could never see the whole picture. The story of a tech entrepreneur changing the world long before Silicon Valley, a man who “built an empire from scratch” and didn’t lay off a single person during the recession—who even chose to pay his vendors early, since they “might need the money.”

Here are some sage words of advice from and about a man who lived a full, successful life; died with at least 322 patents to his name; and left behind a powerful legacy, which literally lights up the world:

Advice to my cousin who was starting a business: Never do a 50/50 deal, and never cheat on your wife. (And always honor your weekly date night!)

About what made him successful: He was insatiably curious. He always was asking why. You have to find out all the reasons why something is the way it is. His focus was intense, and he always insisted on breaking something down to its fundamental components and dealing with things at their root cause.

On his customers: Find out what your customers want and need, and take care of them.

Motto to live and work by: When in doubt, do what’s right.

On his business: “This company is built on what can be, not what is.”

Advice to his grandsons: “I don’t care what you do in life, but I want you to do a damn good job of it. Take care of the people around you, and leave the world better than you found it.”

You probably never heard of Joel Spira because he was a very private and humble man. He laughed a lot. His employees called him “the Chief.” He was awesome. I was lucky to know him. And more people should know of him because people like him are rare and wonderful—an inspiration for us all.

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6 Responses to The True Story of the Man Who Invented the Dimmer

  1. Tracy Herz April 27, 2015 at 9:46 am #

    I was really moved by your telling of a part of the story of your uncle’s extraordinary life and career. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Donna in Delaware April 27, 2015 at 11:17 am #

    My oh my, who knew? Thank you for enlightening us. Now, whenever I lower the lights in my dining room, or any other room, I’ll think of Mr. Spira. You were very fortunate to know him. I can just envision that sunny summer Sunday morning, with the opera flowing on the wind to your house. I do that now and again on Sunday, it is beautiful. He seemed a beautiful human being. We need more of them, unfortunately, most are leaving us. My condolences to his family and extended family members. Keep him stored in your memory and heart.

  3. Alice Green April 27, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

    Thank you for sharing another interesting and touching story from your life. You could write a book, just on the people in your life who have touched you. I’d buy it!!

  4. Yen April 27, 2015 at 5:01 pm #

    wow what a family! thanx for sharing.
    i like this “when in doubt do the right things”

  5. renee April 28, 2015 at 7:42 am #

    This was lovely Maria, thanks for sharing. I’m sure it didn’t happen but wouldn’t it be wonderful if Broadway and movie theaters had dimmed their lights in tribute to the man who made it possible! He sounds like a treasure, who led “a life well-lived.” A lesson for all of us!

  6. barnaby ruhe April 28, 2015 at 11:22 am #

    gee, my two 50/50 deals both went south. it will remain my advice as well.
    the photo has bigbuddha mind right up front, and his little grandchild gracing his left flank. smart man.
    and i’ll bet he got the idea of a dimmer from his date night, an engineer with heart.

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