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The Idea Man

By Charles Apple The Spokesman-Review

Edmund O. Schweitzer III, founder and chief technology officer of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories of Pullman, will be inducted Thursday into the Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C., for his invention of the SEL-21 multifunction digital relay. Here’s a look at his life and work.

1947 Oct. 31: Edmund O. Schweitzer III is born in Evanston, Illinois. His father, Edmund O. Schweitzer Jr., is an inventor who formed his own company and would hold nearly 100 patents.

Life Magazine cover from 1965

1965 A major blackout strikes the northeastern United States and Ontario, Canada. More than 30 million people across 80,000 square miles are left without power for 13 hours. The incident makes a big impression on Schweitzer, who is now an 18-year-old electrical engineering student at Purdue University.

1968 Schweitzer earns his Bachelor of Science degree from Purdue. He begins work for the U.S. Department of Defense at Fort Meade, Maryland.

1974 Schweitzer goes to work for a small Bay Area defense contractor. After a few months, his father convinces him to go back to school. Schweitzer chooses Washington State University.

A young Schwietzer

1977 Schweitzer earns a doctoral degree, writing his thesis on digital protective relays. He begins two years on the electrical engineering faculty at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

1979 Schweitzer returns to Pullman to become aprofessor of electrical engineering at WSU. He’ll work there six years.

1982 Schweitzer founds Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories — which will become better known as SEL. He begins manufacturing his devices in his basement in Pullman.

1984 Schweitzer ships his first product — the SEL-21, a multifunctional digital relay — to the Otter Tail Power Co. in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, which buys three SEL units for $6,500 apiece. Later that year, SEL will move its seven employees out of Schweitzer’s basement and into a new building on Merman Drive in Pullman.

SEL logo

1988 SEL has now grown to 34 employees. It moves into a new building on what will become its permanent campus.

1992 SEL reaches 100 employees.

1994 Schweitzer begins making company stock available to employees. Employees are eligible to participate in the stock ownership plan after one year on the job.

1997 SEL begins several years of international expansion by opening an oce in Canada. It will open oces in China and the United Kingdom a year later, one in Australia a year after that, and oces in Mexico and Brazil in 2000.

2001 SEL opens its Government Services Division.

2003 SEL opens a manufacturing plant in Monterrey, Mexico. The plant will move to San Luis Potosí five years later.

2004 SEL buys Schweitzer’s father’s company, E.O. Schweitzer Manufacturing.

2005 SEL surpasses 1,000 employees.

2009 SEL becomes 100% employee owned.

2010 SEL begins publishing its quarterly “Journal of Reliable Power.” Also that year, SEL publishes its first textbook: “Modern Solutions for Protection, Control and Monitoring of Electric Power Systems.”

2012 Schweitzer is awarded a medal in power engineering by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

2015 Fortune magazine names SEL to its list of 15 Best Workplaces for manufacturing and production.


  • Jan. 15: Schweitzer is awarded his 200th patent. The company he founded now operates in 164 countries.
  • Thursday, May 2: Schweitzer will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.

Edmund O. Schweitzer III, founder and chief technology officer of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories
A young Schweitzer
SEL logo

Meet Dr. Schweitzer’s baby, the SEL-21

It’s difficult for those of us who do not hold advanced degrees in electrical engineering to wrap our heads around just what Schweitzer’s innovative device did for the power generating industry in the late 1970s. But let’s try ...


Modern electrical systems consist of generation stations — think coal or natural gas or wind turbines or hydroelectric plants — substations where power might be stepped up for long-range transmission or stepped down for use, and users. We call this entire network the grid.

working network diagram


It doesn’t take much to disrupt this grid. If there is a fault in any one component — a shutdown at a generating plant or a series of blown transformers at a substation — the entire grid could go down. This is what happened in the great Northeast Blackout of 1965.

faulty network diagram


To keep this from happening, systems are in place to detect faults in the grid and then isolate the faulty component. This used to be done with mechanical means and then power company workers had to search to find and replace the faulty component.

Network with faulty component disconnected diagram

Remember that scene in “Close Encounters” when Roy Neary gets lost in his truck and encounters a UFO? That’s what he’s doing: Searching for a power outage.

the SEL-21


What Schweitzer did in his basement in the late 1970s and early 1980s was work out how to take that mechanical process and turn it over to the new wave of microprocessors that were just then becoming common.

Among the innovative — and money-saving — tasks Schweiter’s SEL-21 could perform:

  • It could locate where the fault in the grid was located, removing the need to send technicians out to search for it.
  • t could run tests on itself to make sure it was monitoring the grid properly and ready to leap into action.
  • It could keep a record of the measurements it makes and the actions it takes.
  • Technicians could monitor it remotely, without having to drive out to wherever along the grid it was installed.