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Keeping the Pace With Earl Bakken

November 12, 2018

In October of 2018, this former electronics repairman died at the age of 94. What did he go on to do? Revolutionize medicine and save lives.

It started with Frankenstein

Even as a child, Earl Bakken was obsessed with electronics, an inclination that started when he saw Frankenstein on a Saturday movie matinee in Minneapolis. The “creative spark” that Dr. Frankenstein used to infuse life into a lifeless monster stuck with him, and he made that idea his life’s work. By the age of nine, Bakken had built a private phone line to a friend’s house and created a five-foot-tall talking robot. He served as a radar instructor in World War II, and returned home to Minnesota where he earned his degree in electrical engineering before finding work repairing specialized lab equipment at local hospitals. By 1949, he had so much work that with his brother-in-law, Palmer J. Hermundslie, they formed a private company out of Bakken’s garage called Medtronic.

Battery-powered pacemaker

They supplemented the repair work by fixing then new-fangled televisions, reselling medical devices…and custom-building medical devices for area hospitals and doctors. One of those doctors, a University of Minnesota heart surgeon named C. Walton Lillehei asked Bakken in 1958 if it was at all possible to build a battery-powered pacemaker. Up until that time, patients with an irregular heartbeat relied on wall-powered, and very large, pacemakers. Not only did that limit their comings and goings, but if there was a power outage, they might die.

That’s actually what prompted Lillehei’s request — he oversaw pediatric heart patients, and one night a power outage led to a death. Bakken fulfilled the request. Adapting a circuit he found in a magazine, and utilizing batteries and a transistor, Bakken developed the first-ever external, wearable, battery-powered pacemaker. Two years later, Bakken and Medtronic developed the first surgically implantable pacemakers. Those inventions have saved the lives of countless millions, including Bakken — he got his first pacemaker in 2001.

Never stopped tinkering

Despite becoming a successful executive, Bakken never stopped tinkering. After retiring in 1989, he moved to a specially built compound in Hawaii. It was “off the grid” by design, because Bakken outfitted the place with propane-powered electricity generators (later replaced with an array of solar panels) and even a small desalination plant to turn ocean water into drinking water.

 

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