When Edmund Schweitzer was young, his parents would give him biographies of iconic inventors such as Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney and George Westinghouse.

Decades later, aside from being an inventor, the founder and president of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories shares something else in common with those prominent inventors.

Schweitzer will join them and many others in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

The former Washington State University doctoral student is being recognized for the invention of his digital protective relay used to make electrical power systems safer and more reliable. His invention replaced the less reliable, expensive and bulkier products used in the industry at the time.

The new induction class of 19 people was announced Tuesday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

"I guess the overall feeling I've had about this is like a surreal feeling," Schweitzer said.

He received a call from the National Inventors Hall of Fame in August while he was sitting in his Pullman office.

The man who called him letting him know about the honor was an inductee himself for having invented the technology leading to digital cameras in cellphones, Schweitzer said.

He said he was humbled the hall of fame "would even consider someone like me alongside the inventor idols that I've admired all my life."

Schweitzer founded SEL in 1982, and the company that started in his Pullman basement has gone global, selling products in 163 countries.

Schweitzer said he was overwhelmed by the positive response from the community after the induction announcement.

He said back in the 1980s, he had "no clue" his invention would lead to this. He simply wanted to see if he could make it.

"I thought it would be the coolest thing in the world if I could come up with something that other people would like, would like to use and would benefit from," he said. "That's kind of what motivated me for years."

He recalled his first day at Purdue's engineering school as an undergraduate when the professor had each student take out a sheet of paper and write down why they wanted to be an engineer.

"I still remember what I wrote," Schweitzer said. "I wrote that I want to be an engineer so that I can take science and mathematics and technology and hopefully use those to make the world a better place."

Schweitzer, who will receive his 200th patent later this month, said to get a patent, the invention has to work, it has to be novel and it has to be useful. Just because someone has an invention does not mean it is valuable.

"So how do you really know that when you come up with a new idea?" he asked. "You don't. And, frankly, society is frequently a very slow judge of that."

He compared it to a farmer seeding a field. Some seeds will sprout and some will not, just as some patents are more valuable than others. If a customer says no to it, that is not rejection, but input, he said.

Schweitzer said many of his employees have inventions themselves. The company itself has 898 patents; 203 different SEL employees have been awarded patents.

Among the other 2019 inductees are the co-founders of Black & Decker, the scientists who created the first class of drugs to treat hypertension and the founders of Crest toothpaste. The induction ceremony will take place May 2 in Washington, D.C., and their names will join the ranks of Edison, Nikola Tesla and Henry Ford at the United States Trademark and Patent Office Headquarters.

"All these stories, they're not just part of American culture ... but they're a part of the human spirit," Schweitzer said. "There's this creativity, and just by the circumstances of life and fortune and education and experience that these guys discovered great things."

Anthony Kuipers can be reached at (208) 883-4640, or by email to akuipers@dnews.com.

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