The event that launched the medical electronics era was, ironically, an electrical blackout. Arriving in Minnesota's Twin Cities on the night of October 31, 1957, the blackout threatened the lives of a ward full of so-called "blue babies" at the University of Minnesota Hospitals, setting the stage for a medical revolution.
"One of the doctors lost a patient, and he asked for a better pacemaker immediately afterward," Earl Hatten, who served as a draftsman and engineer for Medtronic, Inc. for 35 years, told EE Times.
Four weeks later, Medtronic's founder and electrical engineer, Earl Bakken, delivered a crude, battery-powered pacemaker. Based on plans for a transistorized metronome that Bakken saw in Popular Electronics magazine, the new device replaced cart-based, ac-powered pacemakers with a design about the size of two cigarette packs. A day after delivering it, Bakken was stunned to find the unit hooked up to a little girl at the hospital.
"Mr. Bakken never saw what was coming," Hatten recalled. "In 1957, when Dr. (C. Walton) Lillehei asked him to make a portable pacemaker, it changed everything."
Indeed, the portable pacemaker transformed medicine. Using a few discrete elements, a battery, some crude electrodes and a pair of circuits to control signal frequency and amplitude, the first portable pacemakers took electrical therapy out of the hospital bed and into the outside world. By employing subtle electrical pulses to stimulate the heart's tissue, the devices saved lives. Early users hung them on their belts or around their necks. Today, about half a million of them are implanted inside patients' bodies annually.
Medtronic, now recognized as one of the world's biggest manufacturers of electronic medical systems, never set out to change the medical world, however. Bakken launched the company in a one-car garage with a box car attached to its back in 1949. Early employees repaired vacuum tube-based equipment inside the garage for 13 years, braving suffocating heat in the summers and huddling around oil-burning stoves to stay warm during frigid Twin Cities winters. For the most part, the company continued to exist as a medical equipment repair firm for eight years until the fateful blackout of Halloween Day, 1957, changed its fate.
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Earl Bakken's portable, battery-powered pacemaker allowed cardiac patients to leave their hospital beds. (Source: Medtronic, Inc.)
Bakken, now 88 and living with the assistance of devices that Medtronic makes, credits the 1931 movie Frankenstein for his inspiration. "What intrigued me the most, as I sat through the movie again and again, was not the monster's rampages, but the creative spark of Dr. Frankenstein's electricity," Bakken wrote in his 1999 autobiography, "One Man's Full Life."