It’s pretty easy, in this day and age, to get frustrated with technology, and lose sight of how awesome our world is as a result of technological innovation. Every now and then some piece of news will come along to remind us of how great technology can be, leading us on an adventure of knowledge, and restoring our appreciation for science. Today, that news is word that the 500,000th pacemaker has been inserted into a human being.
I’d wager that you, like me, know about the artificial pacemaker; but don’t know the details behind it. My grandmother had one, and that’s about the extent of my experience with pacemakers. I just read the artificial pacemaker Wikipedia page, and learned an awful lot in the process.
As early as 1889, electrical stimulation was being used in experiments on the human heart. In 1926, a stillborn baby was revived using a precursor to the artificial pacemaker. Advancement continued through the 50s, with serious improvements coming in 1956 with the commercial availability of the silicon transistor. Just two years later the first implantable artificial pacemaker was inserted into a human being.
The first clinical implantation into a human of a fully implantable pacemaker was in 1958 at the Karolinska University Hospital in Solna, Sweden, using a pacemaker designed by Rune Elmqvist and surgeon Åke Senning, connected to electrodes attached to the myocardium of the heart by thoracotomy. The device failed after three hours. A second device was then implanted which lasted for two days. The world’s first implantable pacemaker patient, Arne Larsson, went on to receive 26 different pacemakers during his lifetime. He died in 2001, at the age of 86.
We gritch and moan about the stability of our luxury gadgets today. Just think about Mr. Larsson, relying on a life saving gadget that lasted all of three hours. Iterative designs improved upon the product, allowing the man to live another forty three years!