In a spare bedroom with a Ping-Pong table serving as an office desk, Joel and his wife, Ruth, started Lutron at their New York City apartment in 1961. Their initial product was Joel’s invention of the first solid-state dimmer for incandescent lighting.
Under Joel’s 54 years of leadership, Lutron grew to offer a wide variety of products for controlling all types of light bulbs, including LEDs. As recently as the night before his death, Joel was actively working with a team of engineers on the new Lutron Caséta Wireless smart home system comprised of dimmers, switches, thermostats, and window shades that can be controlled from the Apple iPad, iPhone, and Android devices.
Over the decades, Joel received 300+ U.S. design and utility patents, and Lutron earned many design awards. The Lutron NovaT*® dimmer is on display at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the Vierti® dimmer is part of a collection at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. In 2010, products from Lutron’s 50-year history – including Joel’s first engineering notebook, product prototypes, and early advertising materials – were donated to the Electricity Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
A native New Yorker, Joel served in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946 and graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in Physics. He was working for a defense contractor when he began thinking about lighting control and the idea of commercializing the dimmer for residential use. His Capri dimmer was advertised in the 1960s as a way to enhance the ambiance of a room by “dialing romance.”
As the company grew, Joel and Ruth eventually moved Lutron to Coopersburg, Pa., and established Lutron’s core company principles:
- Take care of the customer with superior goods and services
- Take care of the company
- Take care of the people
- Innovate with high-quality products
- Deliver value to the customer
A contributor to the arts, healthcare, and education, Joel was a proud and generous member of Congregation Keneseth Israel of Allentown. He served on a number of advisory boards and councils, and he and Ruth supported education by funding the Ruth and Joel Spira Excellence in Teaching Awards at Carnegie Mellon University, The Cooper Union, Cornell University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Lehigh University, M.I.T., Muhlenberg College, Penn State University, the University of Michigan, the University of Notre Dame, and Purdue University.
He was cited as one of Purdue University’s “Distinguished Graduates for Outstanding Invention” and received the Leonardo DaVinci Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).
Upon hearing of Joel’s death, U.S. Representative Charlie Dent said, “Joel Spira was a giant of American Industry – an Edison-like inventor and a great man very much dedicated to his family, company, employees, and community. I have known Joel for over 25 years; he was a larger-than-life figure to me. I’m deeply saddened by his passing and my family’s thoughts and prayers are with Joel’s family and friends. Joel invented the dimmer, but his memory will always shine bright.”
Michael Pessina, President of Lutron Electronics, noted, “We are deeply saddened by the passing of our Chairman and Founder Joel S. Spira. He was our leader, our guide, our mentor, our strategist, and our friend. He was so much to so many, and felt that each and every Lutron employee is a part of his family. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Joel’s wife Ruth, and his entire family.”
Pessina added, “As the founder of Lutron Electronics, Joel created a business focused on the customer experience and benefiting society. He not only patented the electronic light dimmer but developed an entirely new industry dedicated to lighting control. His profound influence affects all of us in the Lutron family and encourages generations of young engineers, scientists, and designers to become innovators in lighting control and in the fields of engineering and physics. His innovations not only save energy, but also make people’s lives better by creating residential and commercial spaces that are more comfortable and more pleasant.”
Susan Hakkarainen, Joel’s daughter and Senior Vice President at Lutron added, “My father always felt that we should design from a customer perspective rather than just focusing on the technology. His objective is to always make products that are technically excellent, but also beautiful so that people will enjoy them in their homes, offices, restaurants, hotels, museums, schools, healthcare facilities and everywhere they work, live, and play. He was a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, and friend, and considered every employee to be part of his extended family.”
In addition to his passion for collecting watches and birdwatching, Joel created a company called Subarashii Kudamono (“Wonderful Fruit” in Japanese), a grower and marketer of unique Asian pears after being introduced to the fruit during his business travels to the Far East.
Joel is survived by his beloved wife Ruth Rodale Spira, to whom he was married for 60 years; his sister Miriam Spira Poser (her husband Joseph Poser); daughters Susan Spira Hakkarainen (husband Pekka Hakkarainen), Lily Spira Housler (husband Ryan Housler), and Juno Spira; and grandsons Ari Hakkarainen, Max Hakkarainen, and Bailey Malanczuk.
The family has requested memorial donations in lieu of flowers. Checks may be specifically made out to The Joel S. Spira Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) Education Fund and/or The Joel S. Spira International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD) Education Trust Fund, PO Box 850, Coopersburg, PA 18036.
Regarding business operations, ownership of Lutron will remain in the Spira family. This decision is in keeping with the Joel and Ruth Spira’s wishes that the company remain a private family-owned and run business. Ruth Spira and her daughter, Susan Hakkarainen, will be the Co-Chairs and will lead Lutron with Pessina and the current management team.