When Edmund O. Schweitzer III received his doctorate from Washington State University in electrical engineering in 1977, he began a promising teaching and research career, first at Ohio University, and then returning to his alma mater in 1979.
Back in Pullman, he was also busy at the workbench in his basement—designing a device that would soon advance the power industry.
Schweitzer’s invention—the world’s first digital protective relay—would ultimately replace the less-efficient mechanical relays used at the time to prevent power outages and blackouts; not only did his relay interrupt the flow of electricity through a power line during a fault, it also quickly pinpointed where it occurred. This was a technological breakthrough for the power industry.
Schweitzer left his faculty position at WSU in 1982 to focus on the new Pullman-based company he founded—Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL)—building it into a leading designer and manufacturer of digital protective relays and other devices to monitor, automate, and control electric power systems. Today, nearly every utility in North America uses SEL products, as do hundreds of industrial and commercial power enterprises in 168 countries. As a result, SEL is one of the Palouse’s largest employers and has more than 5,500 employees worldwide.
As the company has grown over the decades, so has Schweitzer’s generosity to WSU, with gifts benefitting multiple programs across the entire system. And, in parallel, the company has also benefited from steadily increasing numbers of engineering students whom SEL recruits as both interns and permanent staff. Nearly 450 WSU alumni currently work at SEL.
This pipeline creates an appreciable advantage for SEL in the highly competitive market for engineers. It’s also a major win for WSU engineering students who gain practical experience as interns and the opportunity to launch professional careers with an industry leader.
Schweitzer and his wife, Beatriz, have given philanthropically to WSU personally for the past three decades and their generosity has been aligned with investments from SEL. Together, the Schweitzers and SEL have invested nearly $25 million in the university, impacting nearly every WSU campus and college.
In 2017, a $1.5 million commitment created the Edmund O. Schweitzer III Chair in Power Apparatus and Systems in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture. Their largest and most recent investment in April of $20 million— $10 million from the Schweitzers and $10 million from SEL—will become Schweitzer Engineering Hall.
The Schweitzer Endowed Chair represents yet another significant cross-current between WSU and SEL: The current chairholder is WSU First Lady Noel Schulz, who is a nationally recognized expert in power systems. Her connection with the Schweitzers and SEL goes back more than two decades, throughout much of her career as a pioneer in power systems engineering. In fact, this connection was part of the impetus for her husband, Kirk Schulz, to consider applying to become WSU president.
With the most recent investment in WSU’s Voiland College from the Schweitzers and SEL, this beneficial partnership will only deepen and grow. “We are beginning a new chapter in this storied collaboration between WSU, Ed and Beatriz Schweitzer, and everyone at SEL,” says WSU System President Schulz. “This is a wonderful example of how a dean’s vision and a donor’s passion can align to create transformational opportunities for WSU and in turn, for the world we serve.”
Schweitzer Engineering Hall
Designed for maximizing student success, Schweitzer Engineering Hall will be the first step in a major re-envisioning of the engineering and design precinct on campus, with numerous older buildings slated for either demolition or renovation.
Efforts to revitalize facilities began more than four years ago and, in 2019, a group of Voiland College alumni and donors began exploring building and financing options. Working with university leadership, the group developed a precinct plan, a 10-year project that aims to renovate older structures and construct four to five new buildings, with student preparation and technology needs at the forefront. Schweitzer Engineering Hall will be the cornerstone of the precinct.
“We are excited to develop Schweitzer Engineering Hall, a showcase building that will attract students and faculty to WSU—where students want to come to learn and faculty want to work,” said Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Dean Mary Rezac.
Did you know?
- Enrollment in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture has grown to more than 5,000 students, including about 35 percent who are the first in their family to attend college.
- The average WSU engineering and architecture building was built or last renovated 54 years ago. During that time portable electronics, personal computing, email, the Internet, cell phones and 3D printing were developed.
- The $20 million Schweitzer/SEL gift is the largest-ever private investment in the Voiland College, and among the top five largest private commitments to WSU overall.
- The plan for Schweitzer Hall calls for collaborative maker spaces; rooms for clubs and classrooms; spaces dedicated to advising and tutoring; design studios and learning labs; and an open floorplan that encourages interaction, collaboration, and community.
- Numerous Voiland College alumni and friends are supporting ongoing fundraising efforts with a goal of groundbreaking by 2024. For more information, go to vcea.wsu.edu/give/building-success-campaign
Edmund Schweitzer is a recipient of the WSU Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). In 2012, he received one of IEEE’s highest awards, the Medal in Power Engineering. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2019, is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a recipient of WSU’s Alumni Achievement Award and Purdue University’s Outstanding Electrical and Computer Engineer Award.
News, photo gallery, and videos of the campaign for the future WSU engineering and design precinct.