Spotlight on the Dimmer Switch: Handy Home Device Honored by American History Museum

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Earlier yesterday morning, an assortment of dimmer switches was donated to the Smithsonian. Yes, the dimmer switch now has a spot in the collections of the National Museum of  American History.

Now, now, before you totally write it off, ask yourself one thing: how good is the lighting design in your own home? A dramatically and well-lit home is a happy home, and let's face it, having the lights on full-blast isn't always appropriate for every occasion. Certainly you want a well-lit space for parties, but those kinds of things aren't always going on in your home. Unless, perhaps, if you live in a frat house. Want a romantic evening? Lower the lights a bit to cast a relaxed air over the room. Throwing a fabulous dinner party for your friends? Begin with lights at full intensity and unobtrusively reduce them throughout the meal so that by evening's end, you're chatting away in a smoldering glow akin to candlelight. Suffice it to say, the dimmer switch was no small accomplishment in advancing gracious and elegant living in the late 20th century American home.

And that's the truth. "Dimmers are an important part of lighting technology," says Hal Wallace of the museum's electronics division. "They enable people to have more control over the environment in which they live and work." Indeed, electric lighting in general has become so commonplace it's something we tend not to think about unless it stops working. But dimmers are certainly worthy of attention for their energy-saving capabilities, especially since energy efficiency is at the forefront of everyone's minds these days. Indeed, Pennsylvania congressman Charlie Dent, who was in attendance yesterday, offered the statistic that if every home in America installed two dimmer switches, it would annually save 10 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and approximately 1 billion dollars. That's certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Inventor and founder of Pennsylvania-based Lutron Electronics Joel Spira is to thank, at least in part, for the prevalence of dimmer switches. Although you could find dimming devices in automobiles, theaters and commercial buildings in the early part of the 20th century, it took awhile before dimmer switches made it into the American home. And even when they did, the contraptions were ridiculously clumsy. Because they relied on using transformers and resistors and required special outlet boxes and gave off a fair bit of heat—and they were also initially quite expensive. But by the early 1960s, the dimmer switch became more compact, economical and easy enough for the average homeowner to install. Such is the case with Spira's invention, the first solid-state electronic dimming device to grace the market.

"In 83 years, I didn't think I'd be donating items to the Smithsonian Institution," said Spira after he signed the donation papers. The donated items span a 50-year history of Lutron-produced lighting control products, Spira's notebooks, photographs and brochures. Certainly, one of the standout pieces donated was a cardboard standee promoting the 1964 dimmer switch, featuring a woman in a purple evening gown asking you to "Light up... or down with the Lutron Capri," emphasizing the cosmetic nature of modern home electronics.

No word yet on if and when the switch will be on public display. Nevertheless, even though we may take his work for granted, Spira's inventions are a part of the story of creativity and innovation that drives America. And who knows, perhaps the occasion of this donation will cause you to pause and consider—and maybe reconsider—the effectiveness of the lighting elements currently in your own home. A dimmer switch may be all you need.

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