Controlling the Thinklight from the command line

I found out I can toggle most of the lights on my laptop from the command line in Ubuntu. I don’t know how this is going to be useful, but I’m sure at some point it will be.

I have a Lenovo1 Thinkpad T420 that I use as a secondary workstation when I don’t need the full power of my main desktop (and don’t want to be too anti-social shutting myself away in the office). Its great - rugged, repairable, cheap, powerful enough for my purposes2 and given that it looks like a relic from the Soviet era unlikely to get stolen. One of the features it has that I’m sure seemed like a good idea at the time is a LED just above the web cam with a lens that lets it illuminates maybe 30% of the keyboard, which some clever marketing person decided should be called a Thinklight. Yup.

Anyway, it turns out that the Linux kernel that ships with Ubuntu includes a driver3 that exposes the Thinklight - and for some reason, the power and sleep LED’s - as targets for the Linux LED subsystem. The practical upshot of this is you can control the LED’s by writing magic values into special files in the sysfs.

This means you can do:

echo 1 | sudo tee /sys/class/leds/tpacpi::thinklight/brightness

to turn the light on and

echo 0 | sudo tee /sys/class/leds/tpacpi::thinklight/brightness

to turn if off again. Which is cool. Kinda. I don’t know why its useful to know this.

The kernel also defines an interface that allows developers to write ‘triggers’ to decide when a particular LED should be lit. You can inspect which triggers are available on a system by inspecting the ‘trigger’ virtual file.

cat /sys/class/leds/tpacpi::thinklight/trigger

and select a trigger by writing the name to the same file:

echo heartbeat | sudo tee /sys/class/leds/tpacpi::thinklight/trigger


  1. I almost always type IBM first and have to correct myself. Old habits die hard.
  2. My workloads are usually memory-bound, and I’ve maxed it out at 16GB
  3. I think this is provided by the thinkpad_acpi driver, so if you don’t see the folders in /sys/class/led, you may need to do a sudo modprobe thinkpad_acpi to load the driver