Light dimmers: An aesthetic idea, an engineered solution, a green outcome
School districts across America struggle to include arts programs in an era when STEM education – a focus on science, technology, engineering and math – is given priority. It’s hard to justify paying for arts educators and art supplies when school administrators can barely afford to buy the hardware, software and lab equipment that enable their students to keep pace with the rest of the world.
But here is a business story that illustrates where arts and aesthetics interesected with engineering to create something that ultimately proved to have a sustainability benefit. It’s an improbable tale spreading across a half-century, but it touches just about everyone in the developed world. And it just might provide reason for the math kids and the theater kids to hang out together and even take each others' courses.
The story is about light dimmers. These devices, now common, were the creative inspiration of a young couple in 1950s New York City who probably experienced the dimming of lights in Broadway theaters. They decided something like that could also be useful in homes and offices. As my story in Green Building & Design magazine describes, Joel and Ruth Spira found a way to convert the technology known as rheostats (large light dimmers used in theaters and movie sets) into a thyristor (much smaller transistor-based technology, now tucked behind light switches).
The Spiras used the thyristor to found Lutron Electronics, which today is a global firm selling 11,000 products in lighting controls. If you’ve ever walked the lighting aisles of Home Depot or Lowe’s to find a light switch, you’ve probably seen the Lutron name.
And what’s pretty awesome, from a 21st century perspective, is that light dimmers are energy savers. Lutron says the use of its products worldwide saves 10 billion kilowatt hours yearly, the CO2-reducing equivalent of taking 1.5 million cars off the road.
Considering how the game-changing Lutron light dimmer might have come from seeing a first-run stage performance of “West Side Story,” arts education advocates might have a stronger case.
The relationship between aesthetics and engineering in education is already embraced by some. A few schools are now adopting a STEAM model – science, technology, engineering, arts and math. It respects the ways in which the left and right sides of the brain interact, often producing outcomes that no person or algorithm could ever predict.
Shading systems are another means of controlling light and solar heat gain. But where the selection of window coverings was formerly the exclusive province of interior designers, much more sophisticated shades are now developed in a collaboration between engineers and designers to simultaneously serve both energy and aesthetic needs.