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  • The Russ Prize

  • Russ College of Engineering and Technology

  • National Academy of Engineering


  • February 13, 2003
    Inventing success - one challenge at a time
    By Jennifer Kirksey Smith

    The 2003 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize recipient will be announced Feb. 18 at a news conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. This year's prize will recognize engineering achievements in the biomedical field.

    Wilson Greatbatch is a success by anyone's standards. The inventor counts the first human heart pacemaker among his 240 U.S. patents. He leads six companies. And at 82, he is researching ways to harness the energy of nuclear fusion to make travel to Mars a reality within his grandchildren's lifetimes.

    Video Yet ask him about his greatest accomplishment and he'll tell you it's his ability to communicate with fourth-graders. He figures he's chatted with about 1,000 of them through the years, often about what happens when the nuclei of two kinds of atoms are fused.

    "If you can't explain nuclear fusion to a fourth-grader, then you really don't understand it," he contends.

    Greatbatch was on campus for several days in October of 2001 to fulfill an obligation he landed the previous February when he and fellow pacemaker pioneer Earl Bakken were named co-recipients of the first Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize. The $500,000 prize, sponsored by Ohio University and the National Academy of Engineering, is intended to recognize engineering achievements that improve the human condition. It was made possible by a multimillion-dollar endowment to the University by 1942 engineering graduate Fritz Russ and his wife, Dolores.

    During his stay, Greatbatch presented a public lecture on travel to Mars using nuclear-powered spaceships, met with Russ College of Engineering department chairs and representatives and visited with undergraduate classes.

    Among his primary messages: Success may be great, but so is failure.

    "Don't fear failure," he says. "Failure is a learning experience. Every time I fail, I feel good because I learned something."

    Greatbatch understands the importance of persevering. In the barn behind his house in New York, he hand-built 50 pacemakers using his own savings. Ten of those pacemakers were implanted in humans. Wanting to dedicate all of his energies to pacemaker development, he founded Wilson Greatbatch Inc. in 1960.

    The inventor later licensed his pacemaker to Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc., co-founded by his fellow Russ Prize recipient, and saw it quickly gain clinical acceptance throughout the medical world. In 1983, the National Society of Professional Engineers recognized the achievement as one of engineering's two major contributions to society during the previous 50 years.

    Greatbatch is proud that the pacemaker concept worked. He says nine out of 10 ideas don't.

    "I don't really get interested until it gets difficult," he jokes. "Anyone can be an inventor. I tell the students to just look around and see what your mother is having problems with or your father is swearing at and come up with an idea to solve it. Think how you can do things differently. Then write it down."

    Writing it down is the first step in creating a patent record, he says. To start one, he advises folks to write down their ideas in ink in a bound book with serial numbered pages, sign it and get two other people to sign it, too. Never write on that page again, he says.

    He has some advice for not getting too wrapped up in personal expectations, too.

    "If you get the fear of failure and the craving for success out of your system, then 90 percent of life's stresses fade away," he says. "Then," like him, "you are left with a loving wife, five children and six grandchildren who believe Grandpa can do no wrong."

    So whom, you ask, does this inventor admire? Thomas Edison, naturally.

    "Edison is a hero of mine, and he has more than 1,000 patents," Greatbatch ponders. "I figure if I get one a week, I will catch up to him in 70 years."

    Jennifer Kirksey Smith is a media specialist for Univeristy Communications and Marketing


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