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The implantable cardiac pacemaker

After earning a BS (Cornell) and MSEE (University of Buffalo), and after serving with the Navy in World War II, Wilson Greatbatch began working in medical research. One afternoon in the late 1950s, he was inspired by a mistake to invent one of the most significant medical devices of all time: the implantable cardiac pacemaker.

Greatbatch was building an oscillator to record heart sounds. When he accidentally installed a resistor with the wrong resistance into the unit, it began to give off a steady electrical pulse. Greatbatch realized that the small device could be used to regulate the human heart. After two years of refinements, he had hand-crafted the world's first successful implantable pacemaker (patent #3,057,356). Until that time, the apparatus used to regulate heartbeat was the size of a television set, and painful to use.

Greatbatch later went one step further, inventing a corrosion-free lithium battery to power the pacemaker. All told, his pacemakers and batteries have improved and saved the lives of millions of persons worldwide. Thus in 1985 the National Society of Professional Engineers named Greatbatch's invention one of the ten greatest engineering contributions to society of the last 50 years.

In more recent years, Greatbatch has turned his attention to the environment (for example, he built a solar-powered canoe) and to fighting AIDS. At the age of 77, Greatbatch has garnered 150 patents, and is still inventing. He also shares his enthusiasm for his work in frequent lectures and demonstrations to audiences ranging from graduate students to grade-schoolers.

In recognition of his inventions and his spirit, Wilson Greatbatch was chosen as the Lifetime Achievement Award Winner for 1996 by the Lemelson-MIT Prize Program and serves as one of its invention ambassadors.

[March 1997]

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