Friday, November 11, 2011

The Making of the Pacemaker: Celebrating a Lifesaving Invention

I’m still thinking about Wilson Greatbatch, one of the inventors of the implantable pacemaker, who died a few weeks ago (see my September 30 blog entry honoring him). Here is an interesting excerpt from his book The Making of the Pacemaker: Celebrating a Lifesaving Invention, about how he created the circuit in the first pacemaker.
“My marker oscillator used a 10k basebias resistor. I reached into my resistor box for one but misread the colors and got a brown-black-green (one megohm) instead of a brown-black-orange. The circuit started to ‘squeg’ with a 1.8 ms pulse, followed by a one second quiescent interval. During the interval, the transistor was cut off and drew practically no current. I stared at the thing in disbelief and then realized that this was exactly what was needed to drive a heart. I built a few more. For the next five years, most of the world’s pacemakers used a blocking oscillator with a UTC DOT-1 transformer, just because I grabbed the wrong resistor.”
Here is another story from the book about how he met William Chardack, his primary collaborator in developing the first pacemaker.
“In Buffalo we had the first local chapter in the world of the Institute of Radio Engineers, Professional Group in Medical Electronics (the IRE/PBME, now the Biomedical Engineering Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers [IEEE]). Every month twenty-five to seventy-five doctors and engineers met for a technical program. We strove to attract equal numbers of doctors and engineers. We had a standing offer to send an engineering team to assist any doctor who had an instrumentation problem. I went with one team to visit Dr. Chardack on a problem deadline with a blood oximeter. Imagine my surprise to find that his assistant was my old high school classmate, Dr. Andrew Gage. We couldn’t help Dr. Chardack much with his oximeter problem, but when I broached my pacemaker idea to him, he walked up and down the lab a couple times, looked at me strangely, and said, ‘If you can do that, you can save ten thousand lives a year.’ Three weeks later we had our first model implanted in a dog."
This excerpt is interesting:
“I had $2,000 in cash and enough set aside to feed my family for two years. I put it to the Lord in prayer and felt led to quit all my jobs and devote my time to the pacemaker. I gave the family money to my wife. I then took the $2,000 and went up into my wood-heated barn workshop. In two years I built fifty pacemakers, forty of which went into animals and ten into patients. We had no grant funding and asked for none. The program was successful. We got fifty pacemakers for $2,000. Today, you can’t buy one for that.”
This one may be my favorite. You gotta love Eleanor. They were married in 1945 and stayed together until her death in January of this year.
“Many of the early Medtronic programs were first worked out in Clarence, New York, and then taken to Minneapolis. I had two ovens set up in my bedroom. My wife did much of the testing. The shock test consisted of striking the transistor with a wooden pencil while measuring beta (current gain). We found that a metal pencil could wreck the transistor, but a wooden pencil could not. Many mornings I would awake to the cadence of my wife Eleanor tap, tap, tapping the transistors with her calibrated pencil. For some months every transistor that was used worldwide in Medtronic pacemakers got tapped in my bedroom.”
You can learn more about pacemakers and defibrillators in the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.


  1. "I put it to the Lord in prayer...we had no grant funding and asked for none"

  2. Truly Incredible. How far would he have gotten using such methods to market his pacemaker these days?

  3. Those methods would probably get him thrown in jail nowadays.

  4. He'd still be balled-up in IRB.