Edmund O. Schweitzer III remembers one of his early inventions and the potential it held to revolutionize the electric utility industry.
He recalls the exhilaration when his first potential customer requested a demonstration of the device and the anticipation as he traveled more than halfway across the country to make his pitch.
Only to see it fail with a flip of a switch, and then succeed because of the glitch that highlighted its promise and ultimately led to his recognition as one of the country’s greatest inventors.
The device, the first microprocessor-based digital protective relay, was developed by Schweitzer as part of a thesis project during his doctoral studies at Washington State University in the late 1970s.
The SEL-21 relay – which Schweitzer subsequently brought to market in 1984 after founding Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman – revolutionized the electric utility industry by making it safer, more reliable and economical.
Schweitzer’s relay was able to self-test, record data and pinpoint faults to the exact mile, allowing power lines to be repaired and returned to service quickly, at a time when utility companies relied on bulky relays made of springs, magnets and coils.
“The problems that we were able to solve were kind of interesting. Instead of taking a whole refrigerator-size panel of electro-mechanical things, we could do the whole job in the size of a space equal to a couple of shoeboxes,” said Schweitzer, president and chief technology officer of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories. “I like to say that the result was an eighth of the size, a tenth of the weight and a third of the price. Plus, we could do things that nobody had ever done before.”
Schweitzer is being honored Thursday for his revolutionary invention, joining more than 19 inventors who will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C. He will be among the ranks of more than 560 legendary inventors who have received the honor, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Nikola Tesla.
The National Inventors Hall of Fame, which works with U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, is dedicated to honoring legacies of patent holders as well as advancing innovation and entrepreneurship.
Schweitzer, who holds more than 200 patents relating to electric power system protection, was sitting at his desk at SEL headquarters in Pullman earlier this year when he received a phone call that he was nominated for the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
“I was in complete shock,” he said. “I still don’t know how it happened. It’s been surreal.”
In the family
Schweitzer, who is from a family of inventors, was born in Evanston, Illinois. His grandfather developed the first reliable high-voltage fuse and his father, Edmund Schweitzer Jr., invented several fault-indicating devices and founded E.O. Schweitzer Manufacturing in 1949. Schweitzer merged part of his father’s company into Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in 2004.
As a child, Schweitzer often read biographies about famous inventors such as Thomas Edison, Eli Lilly and Marie Curie, and occasionally assisted his father with inventions in his home workshop.
“I was always out there helping him do something,” he said. “Even when I was pretty young, I was helping him make some of his products. He had a very strong role in my life.”
Schweitzer graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in 1968, followed by a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1971.
He recalls the first day of engineering school at Purdue in 1965, when students were asked to write down why they wanted to become an engineer.
“I remember writing down I want to be an engineer so that I could take science, math and technology, and hopefully put them together and somehow make the world a better place,” he said.
After graduation, Schweitzer worked for the U.S. Department of Defense at Fort Meade, Maryland, and a Bay Area defense contractor before choosing to pursue an advanced degree at Washington State University in 1974.
“I drove up here from Northern California – the Bay Area – to interview as a grad student, and when I was coming up to Walla Walla and crossing the Snake River, coming into the Palouse Hills, I couldn’t believe anything could be this beautiful. I was just struck by the natural beauty of it,” he said.
Schweitzer taught electrical engineering at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, for two years before returning to WSU in 1979 to become a professor.
“I loved teaching. I loved being a professor. It was a lot of fun. But, I was still really hankering to fulfill a dream,” he said. “I really felt the need to invent, design, manufacture, sell and see these things that we were making with our minds and our hands come to life and be used by people and know that it was appreciated because people were benefiting from it.”
The start of SEL
Schweitzer launched Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in the basement of his Pullman home with $2,000 in 1982. He began most days at 5 a.m., making phone calls, and wouldn’t stop until he spoke with a potential customer.
The company garnered interest in the SEL-21 relay from Fergus Falls, Minnesota-based Otter Tail Power Co., which invited Schweitzer to conduct a product demonstration. The inventor arrived for the presentation with a Doble F3C test set, which looks like a large guitar amplifier, and switched on the fault current, but the relay was unresponsive.
“So, then, everybody sits back in their chairs, folds their arms and looks at me,” he said at a company event earlier this year. “So I’m thinking gosh, what am I gonna do? This was really the first demo I had ever done to try to sell anything.”
Schweitzer triggered an event report to examine voltages and currents, and with a technician’s help, they diagnosed the problem: one output on the test set had failed.
“Then the guys leaned in again and they said, ‘Wow, the relay tested the test set, not the other way around!’ So, they got really interested. They bought three units and figured out where their faults were, and they’ve been a wonderful customer ever since,” he said.
Schweitzer moved the company from his basement to its first building on Merman Drive in 1984. Four years later, the company grew to more than 34 employees and relocated to a building on the site of the company’s current campus on the north side of Pullman.
The company, whose products prevent power outages from spreading by detecting and isolating problems on the grid, has grown to more than 5,200 employees around the world with customers in 164 countries. The company eventually expanded beyond protective relays to metering, communications, equipment and cybersecurity. It owns and operates three manufacturing facilities in Pullman, Lewiston and Lake Zurich, Illinois.
A rewarding aspect of operating SEL is hearing positive feedback from customers about its products, Schweitzer said.
“It’s the ultimate reward. One time, a customer called and said, ‘We bought these things for a particular purpose but we are finding out we can use them for more,’ ” he said. “ ‘We had no idea of the benefits we would be experiencing using your products.’ It was particularly rewarding.”
Schweitzer said a particular challenge early in his career was navigating how to run a business for the first time.
“I didn’t know anything about human resources, about sales, about business, so it was a continuous pattern of challenge that I guess appealed to me. Still does,” he said.
‘A rock star’
Dave Whitehead, SEL’s chief operating officer, has known Schweitzer for more than 25 years.
“If you were to travel with Ed to the technical conferences we go to, he’s like a rock star,” he said. “I think after 25 years of working with him, I almost take that for granted. He’s just a great friend of mine.”
Whitehead said Schweitzer is not only a prolific inventor, but is generous, pointing out the many donations Schweitzer and wife, Beatriz, have given to the community.
“He’s a great engineer, a great businessman and has just a big heart,” Whitehead said.
Schweitzer said he loves spending time with his family as well as coming to work, inventing and inspiring people toward simplicity and creativity.
He aims to continue being productive and patenting inventions.
“My favorite (patent) will probably be the next one, especially if it leads to a product and people use it,” he said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.