Friday, August 23, 2019


Fairgoers line up to greet pacemaker inventor

Larger view
Earl Bakken attracts a lot of fans at the Minnesota State Fair. (MPR Photo/Lorna Benson)
Ordinarily the Wonders of Technology Building at the Minnesota State Fair is not where you would expect to meet a celebrity. But fans of all ages lined up to meet Earl Bakken. For those of you who not up-to-date on your Minnesota history, Bakken isn't a rock star or a movie star, but many consider him a superstar of science. In 1949 he co-founded the medical device company, Medtronic. And a few year later he invented the first portable cardiac pacemaker.

Falcon Heights, Minn. — When Earl Bakken meets his fans, there's one particular story he likes to tell over and over. It's about a movie he saw when he was a young boy.

"Dr. Frankenstein used electricity for re-animating the creature he had put together and that's what I said I want to do," says Bakken. "I was about nine years old at the time."

Bakken says after watching that movie, he began experimenting with electricity. The first thing he built was something that looks like what is known today as a Taser.

"And I took a Ford spark coil and put batteries in the handle and had two points out the front and it's about 20,000 volts on a Ford spark coil," says Bakken.

John Allen, who's listening intently, asks Bakken why he needed the device.

"To keep the bullies away," says Bakken. "We used it a few times and then the kids would just run when we would come."

Allen laughs. As he steps aside to make room for other fans, Allen says just couldn't pass up the chance to say hello to Bakken.

"It's a real pleasure to meet him because I had never met him even though I had heard so much about him. I've been a great admirer," says Allen.

At the booth Baaken's stories continue.

"This is an old chum of mine when I was a boy. We lived across the street from each other."

Joe Colianni gives a sheepish grin like he's not so sure he wants all this attention. But Bakken tells him to pull up a chair and help him tell the story about how they made a telephone. Colianni explains that when he and Bakken were young boys they spliced together some dynamite wire, ran it across the street between their houses and connected headphones to the wires to hear each other.

Bakken says their mothers didn't think their experiment would work.

"But then they started talking to each other one day and could hear each other and were quite amazed that it really worked."

These stories to the crowd are actually early glimpses of a man who was destined to invent. Melissa Herkal is a former Medtronic employee who stopped by to see Bakken.

"He was definitely a pioneer," says Herkal. "Just the abilty to have the creativity and imagination and the intelligence to put all that together and to create this device."

Most of the people waiting in line to see Baaken don't have a pacemaker. But Bob Busch has a 55-year-old hunting buddy who recently got one. So he's here to thank the inventor.

"I've always wanted to meet you. Thank you. Thank you. How you feeling? Been feeling okay? Hang in there. You're a good man," says Busch.

From his wheelchair, the 81-year-old Bakken soaks up the accolades.

"It's nice that I invented all these things to help keep people going when they get older," says Bakken. "I have a pacemaker and I have the insulin pump and I have stents in my heart. Without them I wouldn't be here."

Despite the warm fair reception, Bakken says he is worried that trust in medical devices is eroding following a nationwide recall of a competitor's defibrillators.

"People anticipate that the devices are going to be 100-percent. And there is no such thing," says Bakken. "We can keep the rate very low but occasionally one is going to fail."

Baaken says he is excited about the future. He says already scientists have applied the technology behind pacemakers to help manage other conditions including chronic pain, incontinence, Parkinson's Disease and depression. He says researchers are now testing whether they can treat obesity with an implantible device in the stomach.