Thursday, July 19, 2012

The pacemaker's invention, enabled by a mistake

This story is from Steven Johnson's book "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation." The book features an entire chapter called "Error," although this is but one of the core ideas Johnson discusses. Below is an example of his remarkable storytelling, in which he relates Wilson Greatbatch's 1958 invention of the pacemaker after the original idea's long gestation (what Johnson calls a "slow hunch"). The story is another example of breakthrough invention enabled by error; I discussed a couple of other stories of this type in a recent article for The 99 Percent.

Greatbatch had long been a ham radio enthusiast; as a teenager, he had built his own shortwave radio by cobbling together the descendants of de Forest’s Audion. His love of gadgets had drawn him to the Cornell farm because the psychology department needed someone to attach experimental instruments to the animals, measuring their brain waves, heartbeats, and blood pressure. One day, Greatbatch happened to sit at lunch with two visiting surgeons and got into a conversation about the dangers of irregular heartbeats. Something in their description of the ailment triggered an association in Greatbatch’s mind. He imagined the heart as a radio that was failing to transmit or receive a signal properly. He know the history of modern electronics had bgeen all about regulating the electrical signals passed between devices with ever moremiraculous precision. Could you take all that knowledge and apply it to the human heart?

Greatbatch stored the idea in the back of his head for the next five years, where it lingered as a slow hunch. He moved to Buffalo, started teaching electrical engineering, and moonlighted at the Chronic Disease Institute. A physician at the institute recruited Greatbatch to help him engineer an oscillator that would record heartbeats using the new silicon transistors that were threatening to replace the vacuum tube. One day, while working on the device, Greatbatch happened to grab the wrong resistor. When he plugged it into the oscillator it began to pulse in a familiar rhythm. Thanks to Greatbatch's error, the device was simulating the beat of a human heart, not recording it. His mind flashed back to the his conversation on the farm five years before. Here, at last, was the beginning of a device that could restore the faulty signal of an irregular heart, by shocking it back into sync at regular intervals.

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