By Linda Weiford, WSU News
Call it electricity, the Schweitzer way.
When Edmund O. Schweitzer III invented a digital electrical relay in the basement of his Pullman home in 1982, he was a young engineering professor at WSU. Little did he know that the technological device he created would one day keep the lights on in Georgia.
Not just the Peach State, mind you, but also the country of Georgia that borders Russia and the Black Sea.
“The lights would go out one to two times a month, every month, every year,” he told the audience Tuesday afternoon in the CUB Senior Ballroom. “Using our technology, they have experienced zero blackouts in the last three years.”
The world’s first digital protective relay that Schweitzer invented went on to replace the bulky, more costly and less efficient mechanical relays used to prevent power outages and blackouts. In the event of a fault, not only did his relay interrupt the flow of electricity through a power line, but it also quickly pinpointed where the fault occurred on the line.
Since then, the company he founded, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, or SEL, has expanded its products to include metering and cybersecurity equipment and computers with no moving parts. What’s more, his basement startup invention has been refined to the point that it can identify a fault to within 100 feet on a 100-mile line in as little as a millisecond or two, he told the crowd of students, faculty, staff and SEL employees.
“We are so good at locating faults now. It has been like moving from a car to a jet,” said Schweitzer, who, in 1977, earned his doctorate degree in electrical engineering from WSU.
Since then, Schweitzer has maintained close ties to WSU, building his company headquarters only a half-mile away, hiring paid interns and graduates, providing student scholarships and even donating state-of-the-art SEL equipment installed at the WSU Power Plant and East Campus Substation.
His keynote address and reception Tuesday afternoon on the Pullman campus capped a daylong tribute to the partnership that has developed between the two institutions.
“A metaphorical bridge exists between SEL and WSU,” he said, adding that 319 SEL employees are WSU graduates and 75 percent of the company’s student interns go on to become SEL employees.
“The internships are a great opportunity for SEL and for the students. They’re like year-long job interviews,” he joked during his talk organized by WSU’s Office of the President.
Schweitzer’s name may be on the letterhead, but he is one of 5,000 owners of the company he founded 36 years ago. In 1994, he began distributing company stock to employees and completed the sale in 2009.
Allowing employees to take ownership – literally – of their work has created a devoted and innovative workforce, he said.
“We’re growing. We’re 100-percent owned and it’s fabulous. It’s the difference between renting an apartment and owning a house,” he explained.