Feature

Wilson Greatbatch, 1919–2011

The ‘tinkerer’ who invented the pacemaker

Wilson Greatbatch’s most famous invention came about entirely by accident. As an engineer at the University of Buffalo in 1956, the self-described “humble tinkerer” was building an oscillator to record heartbeats but unintentionally fitted it with the wrong-size resistor. The device gave off regular electrical pulses that Greatbatch theorized could stimulate the beating of the human heart—and so was born the implantable pacemaker, a medical device that has saved millions of lives.

Greatbatch was born in Buffalo, N.Y., the only child of an English construction contractor, said The New York Times. “Fascinated with radio technology” from a young age, Greatbatch joined the Navy and worked on shipboard communications during World War II. The “seeming randomness of death in wartime” inspired a deep religious faith within him.

Greatbatch’s pacemaker is still “considered one of medicine’s most significant achievements,” said The Washington Post. After his initial discovery, he quit his job to spend two years developing a workable prototype. In 1958, he wired a device “slightly larger than a hockey puck” to a dog’s heart, controlling its heartbeat “flawlessly.”

Greatbatch’s pacemaker was first implanted in a human in 1960, said the London Guardian, and kept its 77-year-old patient alive for 18 months. But its zinc-mercury batteries required changing every two years. Greatbatch spent the 1960s adapting a lithium-iodine battery, and “by 1972, his pacemakers lasted 10 years or more.”

The pacemaker made Greatbatch wealthy, said The Buffalo News, but this “quiet man” never rested on his laurels. He spent his final years “tinkering with new inventions,” from a genetically engineered cure for AIDS to a nuclear-powered spaceship. He invented a solar-powered canoe in 1991, and steered it 130 miles on one of New York’s Finger Lakes on his 72nd birthday.

Greatbatch taught into his later years, and inspired younger inventors with a simple message of humility and hard work. “Never avoid doing anything because you fear it won’t work,” he told students in 1990. “You should just do your work because it’s a good thing to do.”

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