#190 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 12
is the inventor of the implantable cardiac pacemaker.
He has over 150 patents and has published over 100
technical papers. A
National Medal of Technology awardee, he’s been inducted into
the National Academy of Engineering, the National Inventor's Hall
of Fame, and the National Aerospace Hall of Fame.
He has four honorary degrees and holds adjunct
professorships, including one at Cornell University.
He is president of Greatbatch GEN-AID Ltd., a company in
Clarence, New York.
academia generally obtain their funds through government grants to
fund the development of their ideas.
In industry, it takes a management hierarchy to review and
recommend whether an idea should be pursued.
A few of us
disdain the formality and bureaucracy inherent in these
approaches, and take off--Edison style--on our own.
It's a lonely road, satisfying only to those who have no
ego and thrive on failure. I
am one of these. Nine
things out of ten that I try never work.
But when I persevere, the tenth pays for the other nine.
My philosophy is
very simple: try
hard, that's all that the Good Lord requires of you.
It doesn't matter if you succeed or fail. Failure is a learning experience to help you succeed in a
hospitals are full of people who couldn't stand failure, or who
couldn't stand success. That
will never happen to me because I just don't care!
But I do care that I try, and try hard.
If I demand to be
paid for what I do, whether it be in the form of money, or peer
approval, or just to have a pesky experiment work, I'm asking to
be paid for what I feel is an act of love.
I do it because I feel it's a good thing to do.
The reward isn't in the results.
It's in the doing. Just
to have the total joy of immersing yourself in a good project,
irregardless of whether it works or not, or if it makes any money.
Strangely enough, if you tell lots of people about it, if
your invention is really needed, and if it solves the problem in
an eminently satisfactory way, it will make money in spite
of you. I know.
Jobs at Cornell
In the late
1940's, I was a student at Cornell.
I talked my way into the engineering school, but was turned
down by campus housing that had no room for married students who
didn't live in the county. So
I went out six miles from campus and bought a small farm.
Then I came back a "resident" of the county, and
they then let me into the university.
Mom always told me, "There's always a way."
Mom was right.
After my wartime
years flying in the rear seat of a carrier-based Navy dive-bomber,
it was wonderful just to walk around that beautiful campus, to
attend classes, and be able to learn. But
the GI Bill gave me only half of what I needed to feed my family
of four. I worked all
kinds of jobs. That
was wonderful too. Cornell
hired me, with experience in radar, to help build the amplifiers
that went into their radio telescope.
It sure was thrilling, as an undergraduate, to participate
in that cutting-edge science and engineering.
Since I had a radiotelephone license, I got another job
running the Cornell transmitter on weekends.
That was eighteen hours on Saturday, eighteen hours on
Sunday, and then driving down the mountain to an 8:00 a.m. class
But my favorite
job was working for the psychology department.
They had an animal behavior farm, studying Pavlovian
conditioned reflex. My
job was instrumenting the animals for heart rate and blood
experience came in handy a few years later when I got a chance to
instrument the first U.S. animals in space, but that's another
from Boston were doing experimental brain surgery on some of our
animals. They brought
their lunches in brown paper bags, as I did, and we sat in the sun
talking about the experiments.
They told me about complete heart block.
A nerve, the atrioventricular bundle, malfunctions and no
longer sends the "beat" signal from the auricle to the
heart block can be fatal to 50% of sufferers in two years.
But if you apply a 2-volt pulse of 1 to 2 milliseconds
duration directly to the heart each second, the patient can return
to an active life and can have a near-normal life expectancy.
Artificial pacemakers existed, but they were the size of a
TV and had to be plugged into an outlet.
They rolled around on wheels, and delivered a painful
100-volt shock to skin electrodes on the chest.
immediately that I could build a much better and smaller
implantable device; but not with the vacuum tubes and storage
batteries that we had in the 50's.
But I kept all this in my mind, and went off into aerospace
work, building flight-line computers for fighter jets.
transistors had been invented and became readily available.
Here was my opportunity to invent a better cardiac
pacemaker. By then I
was teaching engineering at the University of Buffalo and working
with Dr. Simon Rodbard, detecting and measuring fast heart sounds.
an oddity then, but I built a one-transistor 1 khz sine-wave
oscillator as an oscilloscope timing marker for fast heart sounds. When I built my next oscillator, I reached into my resistor
box for a 10K base bias resistor, but accidentally picked up a 1
megohm resistor. The
circuit proceeded to give a 2 millisecond pulse every second
instead of the 1 kilohm sine wave I was expecting.
I stared at the
thing in disbelief, realizing this was exactly the
properties of a pacemaker. For
the next several years, most of the world's pacemakers used my
blocking oscillator circuit--just because I pulled the wrong
resistor out of the box!
At that time I
was part of a group of volunteer engineers who were interested in
problems with medical instruments.
In one trip to a hospital, I tried to fix an oximeter
problem for Dr. William C. Chardack, who was chief of surgery; but
I couldn't really help. While there, I suggested my pacemaker idea.
He looked at me strangely and walked up and down the lab a
couple of times and then said, "If you can do that, you can
save 10,000 lives a year."
later, I brought a prototype pacemaker to him.
It was a tangle of wires, transistors, and batteries; with
two wires hanging out.
Dr. Chardack and
his team created heart block in an experimental animal by tying
off the atrioventricular bundle.
This is an open-heart operation, but we had no heart-lung
surgeons gathered around the animal with the beating heart
exposed. On the
"go" signal, they clamped the major vessels, opened the
heart, tied off the bundle, closed the heart, removed the clamps,
and restored circulation, all in some 90 seconds.
I was impressed!
Then I touched
the wires of my pacemaker to the slowly beating blocked heart.
Dr. Chardack looked at the pacemaker pattern on the
oscilloscope, and then said, "Well I'll be damned!"
My lab notebook
shows the following entry for May 6, 1958: "I don't think anything I ever will do will give me the
elation I felt that day when my own assemble of electronics
successfully stimulated a living heart."
pacemaker implanted in an animal worked only four hours.
We were so naive as to assume we could hermetically seal it
with nylon electrical tape. We soon learned that any void would fill with fluid and we
began to cast our electronics into a solid epoxy block. In 1960, ten patients were successfully treated with the
But Dr. Chardack
was a little off in his predictions of patient population.
In 1994, over 400,000 pacemakers were implanted world-wide,
and the company I first licensed, Medtronic, alone did over a
billion dollars in global business.
What I like to
point out is that we did this without any government grants.
In 1958 I had saved $2,000 and enough extra to feed my
family (of seven now) for two years. I quit all my jobs. I
gave the family money to my wife and took the $2,000 to my
wood-heated workshop in the barn behind my house.
In those two years, and with $2,000, I made 50 pacemakers. We put 40 into animals and then ten into patients in 1960.
The device worked, and we licensed it exclusively to
Ten years later,
it became obvious that our mercury-powered pacemakers left a lot
to be desired. The
batteries which should have lasted six years, failed in two years.
We looked at all kinds of batteries:
batteries rechargeable from outside the body, biological
batteries powered by body fluids, and even nuclear batteries.
We finally settled on a lithium-iodine battery, now used by
all pacemakers. Again,
we did this without government grants.
Our total R&D effort on the battery problem cost
$200,000, all of which came from previous profits.
alleviate only bradycardia (slow heart). What about tachycardia (fast heart) and fibrillation (chaotic
uncontrolled heart)? These
also had been treated with external devices plugged into an
electrical outlet. Then
my friend, Dr. Michel Murowski invented an automatic implantable
defibrillator that watches the heart and delivers therapeutic
stimulation when irregular beats are sensed.
These devices put extraordinary demands on the battery, but
we managed to build a lithium battery with a silver vanadium oxide
cathode which filled the need.
This battery now powers all implantable defibrillators.
But the R&D costs keep going up.
This one cost ten million dollars and took ten years--but,
again, we did this without government support.
Looking back, I
don't think we could have done what we did if we had been
encumbered with the bureaucratic machinery of government support.
We had to work fast and efficiently, with minimal
paperwork, minimal supervision, and maximal self-inspection.
Every assembler was a quality control supervisor.
In the early
days, we used to say that if you have to make your drawings before
you ship, you're too big. The
key was fast response to a need.
Because of our fast response, we were able to outcompete
one of the largest electrical companies.
We're now too big for ignoring drawings (regretfully), but
the same spirit is still there in Wilson Greatbatch Ltd.
We have no outside ownership, no long-term debt, and rarely
accept government support. Now,
after 25 years, we’re up to 600 people, and over $40 million in
annual sales. We’re
now introducing a new lithium/carbon monofluoride battery we
expect to be the major implantable power source for the next 25
years. We pride ourselves as being unconventional.
For instance we give full tuition and books to all
employees and their children, wherever they want to go to school.
I hope we stay unconventional!