The Martian Chronicles
Issue 6, July 2000

Meet the Scientist: Dr. Wilson Greatbatch

  Dr. Wilson Greatbatch  
Dr. Wilson Greatbatch

Dr. Wilson Greatbatch was born in Buffalo NY in 1919. He served in the US Navy for five years in WW II partly as a rear gunner in carrier-based dive-bombers in the South Pacific. His small nine-plane squadron used up 27 airplanes during six months of combat and lost about a third of the combat air crews that flew in them. As he said, “The Good Lord must have had something He wanted me to do because I came back without a scratch”.

After graduating as a GI Bill student in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University in 1950, he went on to achieve a Master’s degree from the University of Buffalo in 1957 and to invent the Implantable Cardiac Pacemaker in 1958. He also participated in the instrumentation of the first animals to be launched into space in the USAF American Space Program in the 1950’s. He has since been granted four honorary Ph.D. degrees, has been elected to Fellow Grade in nine professional Societies and has been inducted into three Halls of Fame. In 1986 he was granted the National Medal of Technology by President Bush. He received the Lemelson/MIT Career Achievement Award and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.


Q: What were your interests as a child?

A: I was always curious about how mechanical and electrical things worked. We made some very sophisticated rubber-band guns and had neighborhood “wars” with them. We took my father’s old Model T Ford truck apart to get the magnets out of the magneto, (to his distress). I built my own short-wave receivers and transmitters and got my amateur radio operators (“ham”) license when I was sixteen years old. Electricity fascinated me because there was something going on that you couldn’t see. You had to use a meter, or even a neon bulb, and later, an oscilloscope, to see what was going on.


Q: In what areas did you focus your studies as an undergraduate and a graduate?

A: From my wartime experience I concentrated my studies on communication and science, antennas in particular. My stress was on math, physics, chemistry, and information theory. Cornell at that time was building their first space radio telescope, later to become the facility at Arecibo, PR where the reflector was a hollowed out mountain. They needed technicians with expertise in soldering and they hired us ex-GI’s to build the equipment. I always thought that it was wonderful that Cornell let undergraduates be an active part of this cutting-edge technology of space exploration back in the 1940’s.


Pacemaker Design  

Pacemaker Design


Q: What inspired you to work on developing a cardiac pacemaker? How did inventing the pacemaker change your life?

A: The GI Bill supplied only half enough to feed my family. (Three kids at the time. My only honor when I graduated from Cornell was that I had more kids than anyone in the class!). One of my many jobs was instrumenting 100 sheep and goats at the Cornell Psychology Dept. Animal Behavior Farm. (A good experience since I later got the job of instrumenting the first monkeys in space because I knew what conditioned reflex was). One summer two brain surgeons came down from Boston on sabbatical doing experimental brain surgery on some of our animals. They taught me about complete heart block - when a nerve bundle which carries the “beat” signal from the auricle to the ventricle in the heart becomes nonfunctional. When they explained it, I knew I could fix it with an implantable device, but not with the vacuum tubes and storage batteries we had at the time. Transistors hadn’t been invented yet. But I kept this in mind. Then transistors were invented and became readily available in the late 1950’s. I had saved $2000 and also had enough to feed my family for two years, so I quit all my jobs (to my wife’s concern!), gave the family money to my wife, took my $2000 and went up into my wood-heated barn workshop in the back of my house. I built 50 pacemakers there in two years. With Dr. William Chardack, and Dr. Andrew Gage (a high school classmate), we put 40 of them into animals and 10 into human patients. The thing worked, I licensed it out to the Medtronic Co. who then made 300 the first year. Last year over 600,000 pacemakers were implanted in patients worldwide. Thus the pacemaker and ongoing developments like implantable lithium batteries, provided me with a series of new careers, and changed my life forever. Now we have over 700 people working to make or license most of the world’s implantable batteries, and we give them AND THEIR CHILDREN full tuition and books wherever they want to go to school.


Q: Do you think that being an inventor is part of being a scientist or do you feel that the two are very different?

A: In my case, they are the same. I enjoy using pure science to create and debug a device, but I also enjoy the commercialization of it. Most scientists are interested only in the creative aspect, the proving out of the correctness of an idea. The engineer must use all the tricks of the physical, and natural sciences, but must add an economic factor, usually cost-effectiveness and societal ethical concerns. Most inventors are much more concentrated on the practicality and effectiveness of a device or a method, with less concern for the science background. I need the whole spectrum to stay interested.


Q: What are your current research projects?

Fusion Reactor

A: I am interested in the energy that will power the Earth for this century and will get us to the Moon and eventually to Mars. By 2050AD we will have run out of all the e c o n o m i c a l l y recoverable fossil fuels. We will have run out of places to put the toxic residues from our nuclear fission reactors, and all the alternative forms of energy. Solar, geothermal, water power, bioenergy etc. will only supply 25% for the energy we will need to feed the 10 billion people that will be on earth at that time. We will have no place to go but nuclear fusion. Nuclear fission divides heavy atoms like plutonium and uranium into smaller elements and releases energy, and some very toxic wastes. Nuclear fusion joins two nuclei of light elements like helium or hydrogen and makes much more energy. Heliium-4 is the innocuous gas they put in kid’s balloons. It has 4 heavy particles (two protons and two neutrons). An isotope of helium-4 is helium-3, which has only one neutron. Two hilium-3 nuclei can be joined to make one helium-4 nuclei. One neutron comes from each helium-3 to make up the two neutrons in the helium-4. Two protons from one helium-3 to complete the helium-4 nucleus. The remaining two protons in the remaining helium-3 nucleus come off at 5 million electron-volts of energy, like a slow H bomb. The fuel (He-3) is non-radioactive, the process produces no radioactivity, and the residue is non-radioactive. It is a perfect fuel. It doesn’t even produce any greenhouse gasses.

So what’s the hitch? Well first of all, the reaction takes place at a temperature much hotter than the surface of the Sun. Secondly, there’s practically no helium-3 on Earth! But I tell my engineering students that these are just minor engineering challenges. This is what I work on now. Maybe if your editor will give me more space sometime, I’ll tell you how I think it can be done. I can hear her screaming now that I’ve used up more than my page allowance here.

But WHO will do all this? Do you think I will? By 2050? No, I won’t even be around.




Q: Do you think that the science methodology has changed much since you started your career?

A: Science methodology has changed radically in that devices, instruments, and techniques for measuring and controlling have radically changed. But the scientific method, the thinking patterns and the scientific ethics are still the same. Break the BIG problem into a bunch of little sequential ones and solve them one at a time.


Q: What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment in your life?

A: My most important invention was the implantable cardiac pacemaker.


Q: What would be the three words or a sentence that describe you best?

A: The sentence that best describes me is “One of the Lords smaller people”.