Remembering Earl Bakken, Inventor of the First Wearable, Battery-Powered Pacemaker

The IEEE Life Fellow co-founded the medical device company, Medtronic

4 min read
Photo of Earl Bakken
Photo: Medtronic

THE INSTITUTE IEEE Life Fellow Earl E. Bakken, cofounder of Medtronic, died 21 October at the age of 94.

Bakken started off his career by repairing electronic medical equipment in his Minneapolis garage. Few hospitals had the staff to maintain and fix such delicate devices, so they brought them to Bakken. Seeing the need for a company that specialized in designing and repairing medical machinery, Bakken and his brother-in-law Palmer Hermundslie founded Medtronic in Minneapolis in 1949. In its first year, the company made only US $8.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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