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Earl E. Bakken:
Transcript of Interview 4 Excerpt

Conversazione with Earl Bakken, December 19, 1995 at The Bakken Library and Museum, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“This isn’t a seminar or to teach you something. It’s to inform you and to maybe discuss some of the things about the early days of Medtronic that got us started, see how they apply to companies that might be starting today, or might not fit today’s world. I guess the one theme that rings through everything Medtronic has done is the “ready, fire, aim” theme. So many of the things I talk about today will be things we just burst out and did, rather than analyzing them to death before attempting to do them. Obviously, not everything succeeded, but enough succeeded that we have a pretty stable company, now at the two-billion-dollar level and 11,000 employees.

I would like to talk about the period from the time we started in 1949 till the development of the first pacemaker with Walt Lillehei, who just came in the back here. And that was a “ready, fire, aim.” We just went ahead and did it, and did it in four weeks from the time Walt and I talked about the need until I delivered it to the University of Minnesota.

I think it’s maybe interesting to a lot of people that there was a history of Medtronic prior to the pacemaker. Whenever I talk to some new person, they say, “Well, how did you start your company with the pacemaker?” I didn’t start it with the pacemaker. That was after we were some eight years old before we got into pacing. So there’s a lot of history prior to the pacemaker, and it’s that period I want to talk about today, or have been asked to talk about. Then I would like to have you bring up questions or comments, anything that we can discuss to see what we did, how it compared with other companies, with your company, or however you would like to divert or go, I think we’ll work with.

It’s a little hard to just start with the organization of the company in 1949. I do need to do a little bit before that to tell you how we came to start Medtronic. I don’t know whether you got here early enough to see some of the Frankenstein exhibits in the room back there, and, of course, the Frankenstein stuff on the walls. Is that an appropriate kind of display for a museum like ours? I think it is, because the story of Frankenstein is so important to engineering, that so often, as engineers, we create something that’s meant to be good and then it turns wrong later on. Society turns it into a monster, like nuclear energy, or bioengineering, gene therapy could turn into a monster if we don’t control it. But as engineers, we need to take responsibility for what we create, and of course that’s Mary Shelley’s theme of Frankenstein.

When I was a small child, I was always interested in electricity, and when I saw the Frankenstein movies in 1932, that’s when I became interested in electricity and life. So I kind of kept that theme throughout my life that I wanted to get into that area of building stimulation devices that would restore life or keep people alive. So, for me, the Frankenstein movies were inspirational movies.”

“Anyway, I carried that theme of interest in medical electricity through World War II and then to the University of Minnesota, and went through my bachelor’s degree there at the University and started graduate school and started going across Washington Avenue, which we’re talking a lot about now with the bioengineering school connecting the medical side to the engineering side with the new biomedical school. I started wandering over there because of my curiosity in medicine and electricity in medicine, and got acquainted with some of the people in the EKG [electrocardiogram] area and the clinical labs, and they, knowing I was an electrical engineer, asked if I could repair some of their medical equipment.

That was 1949. If you can visualize that period, it was just after World War II when hospitals, clinics, and labs were starting to use some of the electronics that had been developed during World War II, and they had nobody to repair that sort of stuff. They had engineers who could repair elevators and fans and so forth, but not electronic stuff. The University was trying to get some of it repaired by going to radio shops and seeing what they could do.

One night, Palmer Hermundslie, who was—we were married to sisters. We were at a family birthday party, and we were talking about this, that I was having the opportunity to repair some of this equipment and learn about EKG machines and flame photometers and osmometers and pH meters and all the Beckman stuff of that day and all those sorts of things. He said, “Maybe there’s a business in setting up a quality repair service for medical electronic equipment.” We didn’t analyze it. We didn’t study any market potential. We started the business.

So I quit graduate school, which was a good thing because I was telling Dave here I was just getting into advanced thermal dynamics, and there were a lot of physics students. That was bad enough, but I figured I’ve got to do something else for a while. [Laughter] So I quit graduate school, and Palmer quit his job at a lumberyard, and we set out for the business of Medtronic. We set it up in a garage.”


Biographical Information

Earl E. Bakken was born and educated in Minnesota. He started Medtronic Inc. and has developed many medical devices including the first battery operated pacemaker and one of the first implantable pacemakers. He founded the Bakken Library and Museum in Minneapolis.

Earl E. Bakken