100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Heart Pacemaker
Year of Invention: 1960

What Is It? A battery-powered device to stimulate the heart to beat at a regular
and normal rate.

Who Invented It? Wilson Greatbatch (in Buffalo, New York)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Within seconds of heart failure comes death. If the heart fails to beat regularly and rhythmically, the body’s ability to function grinds to a halt.

The invention of the pacemaker prolonged life. An amazingly simple device, no more complex than an electrical flasher, the implanted heart pacemaker has quietly transformed the lives of millions of people.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

In the mid-twentieth century, hospital researchers invented machines that could stimulate the heart to beat regularly if its rhythm faltered. These early cardiac machines were cumbersome devices about the same size as a television set. These machines kept a patient alive, but meant that he or she could never be mobile again. As a result, these machines only existed in hospitals for use in extreme cases.

How Was the Pacemaker Invented?

Born in 1919 and raised in Buffalo, New York, Wilson Greatbatch had always been fascinated by electronics. He built a shortwave radio as a teenager and, because of this experience, was trained in radio repair by the navy.

After the war, Greatbatch earned a degree in medical engineering from Cornell University. During this period, he worked as an assistant on the Psychology Department’s Animal Behavior Farm. Greatbatch was in charge of maintaining instrument packs on about 100 goats and sheep to monitor their vital functions (heart rate, blood pressure, etc.).

During the summer of 1953, two Boston surgeons visited the farm to practice experimental brain surgery techniques on goats. Over brown-bag lunches, Greatbatch and these surgeons discussed various medical topics. One of those conversations focused on what

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