Reaching Others University at Buffalo - The State University of New York
Skip to Content

Internal Pacemaker

Since 1960, the Greatbatch pacemaker has improved and saved the lives of millions of people worldwide.

In 1956, while building an oscillator to record heart sounds, Wilson Greatbatch inadvertently installed a resistor with the wrong resistance. It began to pulse at a steady pace—a sound similar to that made by a properly beating heart.

Listening to the pulse, it dawned on Greatbatch that this circuit could provide the foundation for a device that could help a diseased heart stay in rhythm by delivering regular shocks to force the muscles to contract and pump blood.

Working in the barn behind his home, the UB adjunct professor of engineering joined what had by then become a global technology race: the quest to develop the first practical implantable pacemaker. After painstaking refinements on the pocket-sized assembly of batteries and transistors, he carried out two years of experimental work on dogs with Andrew Gage, MD, professor emeritus of surgery, and the late William Chardack, MD, then chief of surgery at the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Hospital.

“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,” Greatbatch noted in his diary the first time his pacemaker was implanted in a dog.

In 1960, the first Greatbatch pacemaker was implanted in a human patient. Its inventor went on to replace its mercury battery with a corrosion-free lithium power source of his own invention.

Since then, Greatbatch’s device has improved and saved the lives of millions of people worldwide. That’s why the National Society of Professional Engineers named it one of the 10 greatest engineering contributions to society of the last 50 years.