Since developing the first wearable external cardiac pacemaker in 1957 and manufacturing the first reliable long-term implantable pacing system in 1960, Medtronic, Inc. has been the world's leading producer of pacing technology. Today, Medtronic is the world leader in medical technology providing lifelong solutions for people with chronic disease. Headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, their operations are primarily focused on providing therapeutic, diagnostic, and monitoring systems for cardiovascular, neurological, diabetes, spinal, and ear, nose and throat markets.
Medtronic had a modest beginning. It was formed as a partnership in April 1949 by Earl Bakken and his brother-in-law Palmer Hermundslie. The two men thought of the idea while talking about Earl's part-time work at Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Earl had become familiar with the staff at Northwestern through his wife, a medical technologist. The staff soon learned Earl was a graduate student in electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota and began asking him to repair electronic hospital equipment. Hospital engineers could service heavy machinery but were not trained to repair more delicate laboratory equipment.
Earl and Palmer recognized their opportunity. Earl left his graduate studies, Palmer quit his job with a local lumber firm, and together they formed a medical equipment repair company they named Medtronic.
The two men set up shop in a 600-square-foot garage in northeast Minneapolis. The walls were built with lumber from refrigerator boxcars, and steel bars, salvaged from an old bank, protected the windows. Electric mats on the floor and a pot-bellied stove provided warmth in the winter, water sprayed on the roof in the summer became the air-conditioning system, and hand-built benches and desks served as the furniture.
The new company had a slow start; its first month in business, Medtronic grossed exactly $8 for the repair of a centrifuge. During the second year, Earl and Palmer began representing several medical equipment manufacturers in the Upper Midwest, and Medtronic started to grow.
The Birth of an Industry: It certainly never hurts an entrepreneur to be in the right place at the right time. For Medtronic, the right place was the University of Minnesota Hospitals during the mid-1950s. In 1954, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei began operating on infants — so-called "blue babies" because of the bluish tinge to their skin caused by insufficiently oxygenated blood — in order to repair congenital defects of the heart. The procedure, while effective, often interfered with the ability of the baby's heart to conduct the electrical impulses that sustain a steady beat, resulting in a condition known as "heart block."
To keep the tiny hearts beating after surgery, Lillehei had to rely on the big, alternating current-powered pacemakers that had come into use during the early 1950s. These were large, bulky boxes filled with vacuum tubes that had to be wheeled around on carts and plugged into the wall. They were portable in name only, since they could only go as far as the nearest electrical outlet. Althought state-of-the-art technology at the time, the bulkiness and AC-power requirement prevented them being using them on patients except for only a short period of time. For those pediatric heart-block patients, the machines provided a temporary assist that, in most cases, allowed the hearts to heal enough to conduct sufficiently on their own.
But Lillehei's reliance on those AC-driven pacemakers was an ongoing problem. Their effectiveness was also only as good as their external power supply. If the power failed, they were worthless. And on October 31, 1957, that's exactly what happened. For most Twin Citians, the sudden blackout was only a temporary inconvenience. For Lillehei's blue babies, the three-hour outage was a life-threatening event. Tragically, one baby died that night. And for worried caregivers the experience was another reminder of the limitations of existing technology.
The next day Lillehei conctacted Earl to see if Medtronic could come up with something better. So, back at the garage, he dug out a back issue of Popular Electronics magazine in which he'd recalled seeing a circuit for an electronic, transistorized metronome. The circuit transmitted clicks through a loudspeaker; the rate of the clicks could be adjusted to fit the music. Earl simply modified that circuit and placed it, without the loudspeaker, in a four-inch-square, inch-and-a-half-thick metal box with terminals and switches on the outside — and that, as they say, was that. What they had was a small, self-contained, transistorized, battery-powered pacemaker that could be taped to the patient's chest or bed free of any cords and AC connections. The wires that carried the pulse to the heart could be passed through the patient's chest wall.
The next day Earl returned to the hospital to work on another project when he happened to walk past a recovery room and spotted one of Lillehei's patients. Doing a double-take when glancing through the doorm he noticed that little girl was wearing the prototype he had delivered only the day before! Dr. Lillehei had been told by the hospital staff that the device worked and he wasted no time trying to save his precious patients.
So it was that after only four weeks of experimentation and work, the world's first wearable, battery-powered, transistorized cardiac pacemaker saw its first clinical application and began saving lives. And as it turned out, of course, Earl’s battery-powered pacemakernot only put Medtronic in the cardiac pacing business in a big way, but created a whole new innovative cycle in the field then called medical electronics. And Earl Bakken is often verbally cited in cardiac pacing circles as the founder of the filed of biomedical engineering.
Medtronic Today: Medtronic today operates from more than 250 manufacturing facilities, sales offices, research centers, education centers and administration facilities that serve customers in 120 countries. Medtronic's Europe/Middle East/Africa operations are headquartered in Tolochenaz, Switzerland and Asia/Pacific operations are headquartered in Kawasaki, Japan.
As articulated in its Mission Statement, Medtronic strives "for the greatest possible reliability and quality" in its products and aims to be recognized as "a company of dedication, honesty, integrity, and service." From the early days, customer service was an essential component of Medtronic's operations. At one time, Earl Bakken, screwdriver in hand, tended to electrical problems in local operating rooms, and Palmer Hermundslie piloted his own airplane for emergency deliveries of the company's pacemakers. This hands-on, person-to-person commitment to customer service continues, with sales and technical support teams available to meet customers' and patients' needs worldwide.
To find out more of Medtronic's current research, products and it's involvement in the community, please visit the website at www.medtronic.com. As well, please feel free to download the articles below which detail more of the story of the pacemaker and Medtronic's early history.
Making A Heart Behave*
Earl's Little White Box*
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