Wilson Greatbach

Wilson Greatbatch (September 6, 1919 – September 27, 2011) was an American engineer and inventor. He held more than 350 patents and was a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Lemelson–MIT Prize.[1][2]

Early years

Greatbatch was born in Buffalo, New York and attended public grade school at West Seneca High School West Seneca.[1] He entered military service and served during World War II, becoming an aviation chief radioman before receiving an honorable discharge in 1945.[1] He attended Cornell University as part of the GI Bill, graduating with a B.E.E. in electrical engineering in 1950; he received a master's degree from the University of Buffalo in 1957. Wilson loved fiddling with objects and this would lead to other great things. [1]

The Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker

The Chardack-Greatbatch pacemaker used Mallory mercuric oxide-zinc cells (mercury battery) for its energy source, driving a two transistor, transformer coupled blocking oscillator circuit, all encapsulated in epoxy resin, then coupled to electrodes placed into the myocardium of the patient's heart. This patented innovation led to the Medtronic company of Minneapolis commencing manufacture and further development of artificial cardiac pacemakers.[3]

The Greatbatch lithium-iodide battery cell

In 1968, Catalyst Research Corporation of Baltimore, Maryland developed and patented a lithium battery cell (USA patent 4049890). The cell used two elements at near ends of the electrochemical scale, causing a high voltage of 2.8V and an energy density near the physical maximum. Unfortunately, it had an internal impedance which limited its current load to under 0.1 mA and was thus considered useless.

Greatbatch sought to introduce this invention into the pacemaker industry, which could readily utilize a high impedance battery. The early work was conducted in a rented area of the former Wurlitzer Organ Factory in North Tonawanda, New York. Ralph Mead is understood to have headed the early electrochemical development. Greatbatch introduced the developed WG1 cell to pacemaker developers in 1971, and was met with limited enthusiasm. The lithium-iodide cell manufactured by WG is now the standard cell for pacemakers, having the energy density, low self-discharge, small size and reliability needed.

In the cell as developed for cardiac pacemaker application, the anode is lithium and the cathode a proprietary composition of iodine and poly-2-vinyl pyridine, neither of which is electrically conductive, however after processing by mixing and heating to ~ 150 °C for 72 hours the components react with each other to form an electrically conductive viscous liquid which, while still molten, is poured into the cell where it cools to form a solid. When the liquid contacts the lithium anode it creates a monomolecular layer of semiconducting crystalline lithium iodide. As the cell is discharged by the current load of the pacemaker, the reaction between the lithium anode and iodine cathode forms a growing barrier of lithium iodide, which being resistive causes the terminal voltage of the cell to decrease approximately as an inverse function of the volume of the barrier. Pacemaker designers use this characteristic to permit detection of incipient 'end of life' of the pacemaker's lithium cell.


Greatbatch donated funds to Houghton College New York to create a graduate program in music. The Houghton College of Fine Arts (CFA) was designed with his donations by Robertson Strong Apgar Architects which included a concert hall, art gallery, multi-floor gathering space, and various choir and instrumental practice rooms.


Wilson Greatbatch died at the age of 92 on September 27, 2011. [4][5]

See also

  • Wilson Greatbatch Technologies, Inc.


Specific references:

General references:

  • Biography of Greatbatch at MIT website
  • Greatbatch.com Company Website
  • Beck H, Boden WE, Patibandla S, Kireyev D, Gutpa V, Campagna F, Cain ME, Marine JE.50th Anniversary of the first successful permanent pacemaker implantation in the United States: historical review and future directions. Am J Cardiol. 2010 Sep 15;106(6):810-8.

External links

  • US patent 3057356, Wilson Greatbatch, "Medical cardiac pacemaker", published 1962-10-09 
  • A video interview with Wilson Greatbatch from vega.org.uk
  • Implantable pacemaker inventor Wilson Greatbatch dies from BBC 28 September 2011
  • Find a Grave
  • Battery at the CIA Museum, CIA.gov

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