I am amazed at the number of inventions that have changed our world, but when they were invented, they were not what the inventor was trying to invent. Basically, while trying to make one thing, or repair something, the inventor stumbled on something else, and made an important discovery. Wilson Greatbatch was an inventor who had been quite successful, having 150 patents to his credit at the time of his accidental invention. Overall, in his lifetime, he was credited with an astonishing total of 325 patents for his many great brainstorms. Patents aside, Greatbatch will be best remembered for the invention and development of the first implantable pacemaker, a device which has improved, saved, and extended countless lives since its first use in 1960. Worldwide, approximately three million people currently benefit from Greatbatch’s discovery, with an additional 600,000 being implanted every year. It was not what he had be trying to make, however.
Wilson Greatbatch was born the son of British immigrants, Warren and Charlotte Greatbatch, in Buffalo, New York, in 1919. He attended school at West Seneca, New York. He had many interests, among which were the sea scouts and amateur radio. Greatbatch was just 16 years old when he received his amateur radio license. During World War II, Greatbatch served in the US Navy as an aviation chief radioman. He took advantage of the 1944 GI Bill to attend Cornell University, where he studied electrical engineering. He graduated in 1950 and began a teaching career at the University of Buffalo in 1952.
It was in 1956, while working at Buffalo, that he made his most important discovery. While it was his most important discovery, it was also the result of an error. Greatbatch had been working on a heart-rhythm recorder, but he mistakenly added an incorrect electronic component. The resulting device produced electrical pulses, instead of simply recording the rhythm. Recalling the event later, he said “I stared at the thing in disbelief.” Greatbatch realized immediately that he had found a way to electrically simulate and stimulate a heartbeat. It was to become the most important invention of his life, and one that millions of people would be eternally grateful to him for “stumbling upon.”
Of course, Greatbatch didn’t make the first pacemaker, but the prior models were bulky, external units which required the use of mains power, basically they had to be plugged into the wall…not conducive to leading an active life. At that time, battery technology was not advanced enough to allow the earlier units to be implanted, and my guess is that they were also big and bulky. Over the following two years Greatbatch managed to miniaturize and package the device so that it could be implanted. In May of 1958, he gave a successful demonstration of the invention in a dog. By 1960 the pacemaker had been implanted in the first human patient, a 77 year old man, who went on to live for another 18 months…not bad for a 77 year old heart patient.
A patent for the implantable pacemaker was granted in 1962, and in 1970 Greatbatch founded Wilson Greatbatch Ltd, which was later renamed now Greatbatch Inc, a company which continues to develop and manufacture lithium-based batteries for pacemakers. Greatbatch himself however, despite now having extensive offices and laboratory facilities, preferred to continue his research at his home garage workshop. He was always a tinkerer, and as he said in an interview with the Associated Press, “Nine things out of 10 don’t work, but the 10th one will pay for the other nine”. When he was asked about the change in quality of life that the pacemaker brought, Greatbatch told his local Buffalo newspaper in 1984, “I think one of my first and most gratifying realizations of what a pacemaker could do was in observing the reactions of elderly people to their grandchildren. People with heart disease generally don’t have enough blood supply to their brains and couldn’t respond before to the bantering of kids.”
Greatbatch was presented with many awards during his lifetime. In 1983 the National Society of Professional Engineers selected the pacemaker as one of the greatest contributions to society of the previous 50 years. In 1998 Greatbatch was inducted into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, alongside his hero Thomas Edison. This was followed, in 2001, by the granting of the highest honor from the National Academy of Engineering, shared with his peer Earl Bakken, who invented the external pacemaker. Greatbatch’s autobiographical account of his discovery, The Making of the Pacemaker: Celebrating a Lifesaving Invention, was published in 2000. Wilson Greatbatch died at the good old age of 92 on September 27, 2011. Greatbatch served as an elder at Clarence Presbyterian Church, where he also sang in the church choir and taught Sunday school.