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A tinkerer to the end; Millions of heart patients owe their lives to the genius of Wilson Greatbatch

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Wilson Greatbatch's biggest idea -- the implantable heart pacemaker -- has saved countless lives over the past half-century. The natural inquisitiveness and tenacity of the self-described tinkerer were legendary. He held more than 325 U.S. and foreign patents and was still tinkering with new inventions and discoveries when he died peacefully. Funeral services are being held today in Clarence.

The American Heart Association says that more than half a million pacemakers are now implanted every year. That staggering number grew out of years of experimenting by Greatbatch throughout the 1950s. Greatbatch knew that an electrical current could help stabilize an irregular heartbeat; the difficulty was making the device small enough. By 1960 he had solved the problem, and the first pacemaker was successfully implanted.

He wasn't afraid of failure. "Nine things out of 10 don't work," Greatbatch told the Associated Press in 1997. "The 10th one will pay for the other nine." Self-funded and determined, he kept pushing in his advancing years, despite some limitations of age. At his death, he was working on a cure for AIDS using genetic engineering and a nuclear-powered spaceship to send people to Mars.

He spoke for 15 consecutive years at Millar's Engineering Career Institute about entrepreneurship and the importance of never giving up. Toward the end of his life, he was legally blind and nearly deaf, but still came in using a walker to talk to students.

Greatbatch graduated with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Cornell University and held a master's degree from the University at Buffalo, along with seven honorary doctorates.

His achievements were numerous and worthy of all the awards and accolades as a member of the National Inventors and National Aerospace halls of fame. In 1990, he received the National Medal of Technology from President George H.W. Bush.

Greatbatch was generous with his time and talent, and left an enduring legacy besides the millions of lives his pacemaker extended. He was a philanthropist who donated land to the Town of Clarence where he lived, awarded community grants and provided free tuition and books to his employees and their children.

He was an inspiration to the engineering students he talked to and to anyone who ever wanted something better. He said, "Don't fear failure, don't crave success. Never avoid doing something because you fear it won't work."

Greatbatch was the ultimate American entrepreneur, a self-reliant genius with a never-ending drive to invent. Indeed, his life was an inspiration.

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