Today's revolution in lighting controls is built on fifty years of history

The quaint English seaside town of Southwold is well worth a visit, with its picturesque painted beach huts, famous pier, and fantastic array of gastropubs. For lighting enthusiasts, I also highly recommend ascending Southwold’s iconic lighthouse.

The narrow spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse transports you back in time to a brief history of maritime flashing light controls. A wonderful hand-wound mechanical system of weights still remains on the penultimate level, part of a now disused light-flashing system that worked by means of a clockwork shutter, lifting to reveal the lamp at the appropriate flash rate.

The lighthouse has updated its light source over the years, but keeps the old ones on display | Photo: Nick Garrod

The panoramic views from the top are breathtaking, but if you turn your back on them and instead look underneath the rotating Fresnel lens system (still working), there’s also a small display of the light sources that have been deployed there over the years, from behemoth bell jar-sized bulbs, to smaller, more familiar-looking lamps. The current system, which runs 24/7, uses a low-voltage lamp and rotating optical system to give a beam that’s visible to shipping from 24 miles out to sea.

Standing above the town, surrounded by this mini museum of maritime flashing light technology makes you reflect on the evolution of our own, more familiar lighting controls industry.

The modern era of commercial, industrial and residential lighting controls has had a fascinating history of its own. Over the last half century we’ve started to leave the simple on-off switch behind to welcome new innovations: dimming for effect, dimming for comfort and dimming for energy-saving can now be found both in our homes and workspaces. Modern controls combine convenience with much-needed energy-efficiency. Aesthetic appeal is now expected in terms of new intuitive user interfaces; you can even control your lighting from your wristwatch.

How far we’ve come since the early days. From single-circuit dimming, to scene-setting, to integration with other building systems the controls journey shows no sign of slowing. As new light sources have evolved, so have the controls to tame and transform them: from dimming of incandescent lamps, to fluorescent lamps, to the modern world of LED.

How did we come so far?

Joel Spira, 1927-2015

The founding father of this modern controls era, the inventor who patented the first solid-state dimmer in the late 1950s, Joel Spira, passed away last month at the age of 88. His legacy is an entire industry, along with a panoply of products from Lutron that bore his personal engineering touch. Together those products contribute to global energy savings that add up to literally billions of kilowatt-hours every year. As well as pioneering these, Spira provided the inspiration for a new generation of designers and engineers to continue this work, which included the first fluorescent dimmer and the first scene-setting system. The Lutron Grafik Eye has become an icon in its own right, the curious name representing a visual version of the graphic equalisers used for audio, enabling independent lighting zones to be ‘balanced’ scene by scene.

Recognised during his lifetime by the Smithsonian Institute as a significant contributor to the modern world, Spira was renowned for his hands-on approach within the industry that he both loved and founded, right up until his final day. Under his tutelage a revolution in dimming was born and grew: a vision to save energy, to make control convenient, and to achieve mastery over all light sources, both artificial and natural.

The passing of such a luminary inevitably causes me and my Lutron colleagues to reflect on the past and to look to the future. Could you now imagine a world where dimming was confined to theatre lighting? Yet its only fifty years since the idea of dimming in our homes was equally unheard of. It was Spira himself who said, in a 2012 interview, ‘someday I’ll be gone, but dimmers will be with us forever’. I salute his legacy, and look forward with eager anticipation to the innovations that the next fifty years will bring us, and the rising generations of innovators that will them to us in our homes and workplaces.

Sam Woodward is Lutron’s customer education leader for Europe and Africa