Who Invented the Pacemaker?
Who Invented the Pacemaker?
The artificial pacemaker is a wonder of modern science. A small, implantable device that regulates a human heart beat through electrical impulses have saved millions of lives. The development of this vital medical device owes much to the advances in electronics and communications brought about by the Space Age.
Two Americans, Dr. William Chardack and engineer Wilson Greatbatch, are credited as having invented the first fully implantable pacemaker. The Chardack-Greatbach pacemaker was licensed and sold by Medtronic in 1960. However, the story of the pacemaker dates back nearly 35 years earlier.
An artificial pacemaker with electrode from St. Jude Medical. The body of the device is about four centimeters long. Photo by Steven Fruitsmaak
In 1926, Australian doctors Mark C. Lidwell and Edgar H. Booth invented the first pacemaker. It was a portable device that consisting of two poles, one of which included a needle that would be plunged into a cardiac chamber. It was very crude, but it succeeded in reviving a stillborn baby at a Sydney hospital in 1928.
In the decades that followed, inventors came up with increasingly sophisticated versions of the pacemaker. However, these devices – which relied upon vacuum tubes – remained heavy and bulky, affording little or no mobility for patients. Colombian electrical engineer Jorge Reynolds Pombo developed a pacemaker in 1958 weighed 99 lbs and was powered by a 12-volt auto battery.
During the 1950s, the development of commercially available silicon transistors greatly advanced progress on pacemakers. In late 1957, American engineer Earl Bakken invented the first wearable external pacemaker.
Surgeons at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden were the first to place a fully implantable device into a patient in 1958. Rune Elmqvist and surgeon Ake Senning invented this pacemaker, which was implanted in the chest of Arne Larsson. The first device failed after three hours, the second after two days. Larsson would have 26 different pacemakers implanted in him. He died at the age of 86 in 2001, outliving both Elmqvist and Senning.
At about this same time, a major breakthrough occurred in the United States. Drs. William Chardack and Andrew Gage developed a totally implantable pacemaker with engineer Wilson Greatbatch at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Buffalo, NY. In 1960, after they published a research paper on their work, an American company named Medtronic licensed the technology.
The Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker was powered by a mercury battery, which tended to have a short lifespan. In 1971, Greatbatch developed the lithium iodide cell, which lasted longer and soon became the standard for pacemaker design. This was just one of Greatbatch's many inventions; he would go on to hold more than 350 patents and was awarded the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize in 1996 for his work on pacemaker batteries.
The rapid progress made in pacemaker design over the past half century owes an assist to the space industry. Microelectronics, communications technologies, and batteries developed for the space program helped to shrink pacemakers and make them more reliable and effective.
The electronic monitoring used by heart pacemakers is very similar to that used to operate satellites in orbit and to wirelessly transmit an astronaut's vital signs. The communication technology used in today's programmable pacemakers is derived from satellite technology. Battery life has also improved enormously. Today, pacemaker batteries can run for 20 years and be recharged through the skin.
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