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Wilson Greatbatch - Inventor of the First Practical Implantable Cardiac Pacemaker

October 3, 2011

Many great inventions are interdisciplinary in nature. The inventor, skilled in one field, becomes interested in a problem outside his field, and he has a great idea that leads to an invention. Such was the case for Wilson Greatbatch, an electrical engineer from Buffalo, New York, in 1956. His experience in designing a transistorized heart monitor for the Chronic Disease Research Institute of the State University of New York at Buffalo led to his development of the first practical implantable pacemaker. Wilson Greatbatch (b. September 6, 1919) died on September 27, 2011, at age 92.[1-8]

In building that heart monitor, Greatbatch had to deal with the non-ideal properties of the transistors that were available at that time. The transistor had just been invented in 1947, and early commercial transistors were primitive affairs, laboriously constructed (does anyone remember the venerable CK722?). They had very low gain, so it wasn't always possible to design with enough negative feedback to keep amplifiers stable.

Quite often, your amplifier would become unstable and break into oscillation. The same thing happened with Greatbatch's heart monitor, and he realized that his monitor circuit could also produce electrical impulses similar to those that the original circuit would be monitoring. For Greatbatch, the oscillation mode was fortuitous, since the wave train was a series of 1.8 millisecond pulses separated by an interval of about a second.[9] The circuit consumed very little average current. Said Greatbatch, "I realized that this was exactly what was needed to drive a heart."[5]

Figure two from US Patent No. 3,057,356

Figure two from US Patent No. 3,057,356, "Medical Cardiac Pacemaker," by Wilson Greatbatch, October 9, 1962, via (Google Patents).[10] This is a simple blocking oscillator with a one-stage amplifier.

Greatbatch had remembered a lunchtime conversation about heart electrical activity he had with two visiting surgeons while he was an undergraduate student working at an animal behavior laboratory at Cornell University, and he reasoned that an external electrical stimulus could substitute for the one naturally generated in the heart.[9] His reminiscence of this is contained in his 2001 memoir, "The Making of the Pacemaker."[11]

Greatbatch decided to pursue his invention and perfect an implantable human cardiac pacemaker. He used $2,000 in savings (almost $20,000 in today's money) and set to work in a barn laboratory at his home in Clarence, New York, outside Buffalo. He spent two years developing a prototype pacemaker.[2] An electronic device on its own is not a medical device, so he enlisted the aid of William C. Chardack, a surgeon at the Buffalo Veterans Administration Hospital, for in vivo testing, first on dogs, and then on humans.[1,5]

After the first dog experiment, in which Greatbatch's two-transistor, half-pound pacemaker successfully controlled a living heart, he wrote in his diary.
"I seriously doubt if anything I ever do will ever give me the elation I felt that day when my own two cubic inch piece of electronic design controlled a living heart."[2]

Greatbatch's human cardiac pacemaker was implanted in 1960 in eight adult human subjects and two children, all of whom were given just a 50% chance of survival of one year without such intervention.[2,9] The device, which worked admirably, was licensed to Medtronic of Minneapolis. Medtronic had developed its own external pacemaker, and it quickly became the world leader in implanted cardiac pacemaker technology. More than half a million pacemakers are implanted annually.[1,3] Medtronic is presently valued at $36 billion.[8]

Just a little earlier, in 1958, Rune Elmqvist and Åke Senning of Sweden produced an implantable pacemaker.[3] This device was surgically implanted in a human at the Karolinska Institute in Solna, Sweden, but it failed after three hours. Improvements in the device brought the time to failure up to two days, and then several months.[5] That's why Greatbatch is credited with the first practical implantable cardiac pacemaker, but not the first.

Although the pacemaker worked as intended, its Achilles heel was its power supply. The zinc-mercuric oxide batteries, the best available technology at the time, would need to be replaced after just two years, which required another surgical procedure. Greatbatch founded Wilson Greatbatch Ltd.(subsequently, Greatbatch Inc.) to address the battery problem. He acquired the rights to a primitive, and possibly explosive, lithium-iodine cell, and by 1972 he developed an implantable version that could power a pacemaker for ten years.[1,6] His batteries at one time were used in ninety percent of all pacemakers, and they even flew in equipment on the Space Shuttle.[2]

What conditions molded Greatbatch into an innovator who makes such a huge contribution to human welfare? His parents weren't professionals, although his construction contractor father likely showed him a few tricks with materials and tools. Like many famous engineers of his age, Greatbatch was an amateur radio operator (W2QBO). At the young age of sixteen, Greatbatch passed the test for his amateur radio license, which at that time required skill in Morse code, and he joined the Sea Scouts, a Boy Scout variant, since they had a radio station.[12]

During World War II, Greatbatch maintained shipboard communications and guidance systems for the Navy, eventually being assigned to airborne combat missions.[1] After the war, Greatbatch married his childhood sweetheart, Eleanor Wright, and worked as a telephone repairman for a year before entering Cornell on the G.I. Bill.[1,6] At Cornell, aside from his work at the animal farm instrumenting animals to monitor their vital functions, he built radio receivers for the Arecibo radio telescope.[9]

Greatbatch received his BS in electrical engineering from Cornell in 1950, and eventually was awarded a master's degree in electrical engineering from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1957.[2,6] He then became the manager of the electronics division at Taber Instrument Corporation, Buffalo, where he tried to get support for his pacemaker ideas. Rebuffed at Taber, he quit to pursue the pacemaker on his own.[1]

Greatbatch was awarded a huge number of patents; so many, in fact, that the sources for this article give conflicting numbers.[1,2] In 1986, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[2]. In 1990, he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from US President, George H.W. Bush.[2] Greatbatch was a member of the National Academy of Engineering.[6] He lived simply, donating his money to scientific research, charities and educational institutions.[3]

His philosophy of invention was simple,
"Nine things out of ten don't work - the tenth will pay for the other nine." [4]


  1. Barnaby Feder, "Obituary: Wilson Greatbatch / Inventor who designed first practical implantable pacemaker," The New York Times, October 1, 2011.
  2. T. Rees Shapiro, "Wilson Greatbatch, co-inventor of implantable pacemaker, dies at 92," Washington Post, September 28, 2011.
  3. Valerie J. Nelson, "Wilson Greatbatch dies at 92; inventor of first practical implantable pacemaker," Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2011.
  4. Caroline Richmond, "Wilson Greatbatch obituary - American inventor of the first practicable heart pacemaker," Guardian (UK), September 29, 2011.
  5. Wilson Greatbatch, Telegraph (UK), September 28, 2011.
  6. Caroline Flax, "Wilson Greatbatch ’50, Pacemaker Inventor, Dies," Cornell Sun, September 30, 2011.
  7. UB mourns death of Wilson Greatbatch, University of Buffalo Web Site, September 29, 2011.
  8. Andy Kessler, "How Wilson Greatbatch 'Gave Back'," Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2011.
  9. John Adam, "Wilson Greatbatch - Engineer, Inventor of the Medical Cardiac Pacemaker, Engology.
  10. Wilson Greatbatch, "Medical Cardiac Pacemaker," US Patent No. 3,057,356, October 9, 1962.
  11. Wilson Greatbatch, "The Making of the Pacemaker: Celebrating a Life-Saving Invention," Prometheus Books, January, 2001, 260 pages (via Amazon).
  12. Southgate Amateur Radio News, "Radio Amateur Wilson Greatbatch W2QBO, who developed the implantable cardiac pacemaker, passed away on September 27, 2011, aged 92," September 29, 2011.

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