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The first artificial pacemaker: the best thing since sliced bread?
  1. John Launer
  1. Correspondence to Dr John Launer, Health Education England, Stewart House, 32 Russell Square, London WC1H 5DN, UK; johnlauner{at}aol.com

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If you had bought a copy of the American magazine ‘Popular Mechanics’ in March 1933, you would have seen the announcement of two remarkable new machines on the same page.1 One of these was an automated bread slicer. “Bread is cut and spread with butter or jam at the turn of a crank”, the report explained. “It has a capacity of sixty slices a minute. The thickness of the slice and the spread can be regulated, and no special preparation of either the bread or the butter is necessary.” The other, slightly longer report described a different crank-driven machine, under the heading “Beating of heart is revived by electrified needle.” It gave an account of an apparatus called “the artificial pacemaker.” “When the heart stops”, the article reported, “the needle is inserted into the right auricle. Electrical impulses of low power are applied with a generator. These impulses can be regulated to forty, eight or 120 beats per minute, depending on the age of the patient and the normal rate of his heartbeat. Where the operation is successful, the electrical stimuli restore the inert heart to its natural beat”.

The machine being described here was the one that the New York cardiologist Albert Hyman had announced the previous year in the Archives of Internal Medicine.2 It was there that he first introduced the term “artificial pacemaker”, likening it to the heart’s own natural pacemaker, the sinu-atrial node. Hyman considered the hand-operated electrical generator that he had invented (with his brother …

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