Note: This article appeared as part of the 2003 Hall of Fame series.
“I don't think you can separate me from lighting,” said Peerless Lighting's Peter Ngai. “Lighting is my life, period.” Ironic words from someone who only came across lighting when, as a college senior, he was looking to fulfill a degree requirement with an “easy” elective. “We had to take these technical electives in an engineering or technical field outside your major,” said Ngai, a graduate of the University of California Berkeley's electrical engineering/computer science department. “Being a young man and actually having to work for my schooling, I really didn't want to enroll in the tougher courses, such as aerodynamics.” To try to get a feel for the class, Ngai met the professor, Dan Finch, who seemed to be a very “kind man,” and who, he later learned, was “one of the luminaries of the lighting field.” Said Ngai, “The course sounded like it would not be that difficult, so I thought, 'What the heck,' and enrolled.” Thus ignited a lifelong passion for lighting and one of the industry's most illustrious careers.
“In Professor Finch's course, I found that lighting was so different from everything else I was taking at that time,” said Ngai. “Through him, I understood that lighting is not just engineering, physics, natural science, psychology, art, architecture, physiology, biology. It's everything combined. It is so encompassing that you need to have a very broad view of the world in order to be good at it. It was fascinating. I was just like a sponge, soaking up everything I could get.” So much so that by the time he had completed his undergraduate degree at Berkeley, Ngai had taken every illuminating engineering course offered by the university and decided that he would never become a computer engineer.
Following Finch's retirement, Ngai studied with Ronald Helms at the University of Colorado, where he pursued a master's degree in architectural engineering with an emphasis in lighting and visual perception. His knowledge of psychology would later help him in his work with brightness perception. Said he, “The idea of introducing brightness in a luminaire to make the room look brighter and issues of glare and visual comfort have a lot to do with not just the physical intensity of a luminaire, but also the perceptual response from the occupant.”
At Holophane, where he was hired as a lighting research engineer after graduate school, Ngai grappled with such concerns as the visibility theory, visual contrast and equivalent sphere illumination. His stint at Holophane concluded after about three years, however, when the new luminaires being produced at Peerless caught his eye. “They had introduced a method of manufacturing these long linear luminaires with aluminum extrusion,” he said. “What that did was that it allowed the shape and form of a luminaire to be very compatible and appropriate with interior architecture.” Ranging from rounded to rectilinear cross-sections available in different lengths, the forms provided an attractive alternative to the 2x4 lenses and parabolic luminaires and surface-mounts popular at the time. A firm believer that luminaires can complement architectural interiors and that “lighting designers should not apologize for putting fixtures in a space because they might destroy its aesthetics,” Ngai was thrilled by the new shapes and went to work for Peerless. “I said to Douglas Herst, the owner of Peerless then, 'Now your luminaires have beautiful bodies. What I want to do is to put Porsche engines into them, so that they not only look good, but also perform,'” said Ngai. This marked the beginning of almost three decades of collaboration between the two men.
Since joining Peerless in 1976, Ngai has been responsible for Lighting Research, Product Development, Luminaire Design and Application Engineering and currently serves as VP of engineering. He has helped advance the fundamental understanding of lighting theories, optical designs for luminaires and lighting applications and lent his knowledge and talent to such areas are equivalent sphere illumination, visibility studies, nearfield photometry, solar illumination, computer rendering for lighting, task lighting, brightness and glare research, and lens and reflector optics. Instrumental in introducing the application of T8 lamps to the U.S. lighting industry in the early '80s, the F50 biax and the T5/HO in the '90s, he has been a major driver in the U.S. in bringing indirect lighting to spaces where visual comfort, visual effectiveness and energy consumption are critical.
Ngai's passion has also extended to collaborative research efforts with institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He has published numerous articles, holds many patents and is an active member and Fellow of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. In 2001, he received the IES Taylor Technical Talent Award and is currently chairman of the Quality of the Visual Environment (QVE) Committee, a post that speaks to one of his key concerns. Although energy savings is often stressed nowadays, Ngai emphasizes that “energy savings must be done within the context of good quality lighting: The sheer trying to save energy without the consideration for quality lighting is very short-sighted.” To that end, one of his hopes for the future is the development of a system by which one can “predict and design a lighting environment that is effective for its intended purpose.” Said Ngai, “For example, if we want to create a lighting system that is appropriate for the learning environment, what are the different alternatives for designing a classroom that will really promote the idea of learning?”
Despite his many accomplishments, Ngai still has a lot that he wants to do. For him, lighting is all-consuming, and when asked to give advice for newcomers to the industry, he answered, “With lighting, you are completely involved not only in your own little area of expertise, but you also talk to the lighting designers, architects, engineers, luminaire designers, ergonomists, educators, material scientists, optics specialists, psychologists and physiologists-you are constantly involved with all of these areas, so there's no way for you not to be interested.” He added, “So watch out: In lighting, it's easy to get in, but very difficult to get out.”