Born: 10 January 1924
Oscar Wilde wrote that “life imitates art.” The life of Earl Bakken would seem to be a case in point. As a young boy, Bakken’s favorite motion picture was Frankenstein, the fictitious story of Dr. Frankenstein’s effort to bring an inanimate being to life through the power of electricity. Fast forward to 1957. Bakken, now a grown man and head of his own electronic medical equipment company, has just constructed the world’s first self-contained pacemaker, an electronic device that provides a normal heartbeat through electronic stimulation of the heart muscle. This allows millions of otherwise condemned heart patients to live long fruitful lives. Like Victor Frankenstein, though with a decidedly more positive outcome, Bakken provided life through the power of electricity.
Earl Bakken was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 10 January 1924. From an early age he demonstrated a keen interest in electricity, figuring out the electrical wiring in his house and building electrical devices, including a robot that could smoke cigarettes and wield knives. During World War II, Bakken served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps as a radar engineer. After the war he entered the University of Minnesota and earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1948. It was while he was courting his future wife, who worked in a hospital, that Bakken’s life mission came into focus. Through his wife Bakken struck up friendships with other hospital personnel. Before long he found himself repairing their broken electronic medical equipment. Seeing the need for a company that specialized in repairing electronic medical equipment, Bakken, along with his brother-in-law, started Medtronic Inc. in 1949 in a garage in Minneapolis.
The company struggled at first. Then, in 1957, Dr. C. Walton Lillehei approached Bakken about making a better pacemaker than the AC (alternating current) pacemakers then used in intensive care units. Within four weeks, Bakken produced a small, self-contained, transistorized, battery-powered pacemaker that could be taped to the patient’s chest. He described the process in his autobiography: “Back at the garage, I dug out a back issue of Popular Electronics magazine in which I 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. I simply modified that circuit and placed it, without the loudspeaker, in a four-inch-square, inch-and-thick metal box with terminals and switches on the outside—and that, as they say, was that.” The very next day, the pacemaker was used in the hospital on the first patient. Shortly after, in 1960, Medtronic licensed the world’s first transplantable pacemaker from Wilson Greatbatch. In 1984, the National Society of Professional Engineers named the cardiac pacemaker one of the 10 outstanding engineering achievements of the last half of the twentieth century.
In 1975 Bakken opened The Bakken, an interactive museum dedicated to teaching the wonders of electricity and magnetism in the life sciences. One of the exhibits allows patrons to travel back to the early 1800s and into Frankenstein's laboratory just as he is about to bring his monster to life.