A young boy sits in a dark theater staring wide-eyed. Completely fixated,
he is entranced by the flickering images of Dr. Frankensteins laboratory.
Gripping the arms of his seat as electricity flashes across the expansive
screen with a thunderous clatter, the boy gapes as the creationand
his own imaginationcome alive. A dreamer is born.
While other children were roaming the halls of their homes with their
arms outstretched in true Frankenstein style, Earl Bakken sat intrigued
by a spark of electricity powerful enough to restore life to the unliving.
The pulsating images captivated him throughout his childhood, came alive
in his dreams, and became the foundation of many inventions. His fascination
with electricity and its capacity to create would not only shape his youth,
but ultimately his career.
Even today, Bakken is no ordinary dreamer. Credited with inventing the
worlds first wearable, battery-operated external pacemaker, Bakken
helped launch the modern medical-technology industry. Through his leadership
of Medtronic, the Fortune 500 company he founded and led until his retirement
more than 15 years ago, Bakken has enabled millions of people with life-threatening
illnesses to be restored to full life and health.
Now, in his eighth decade, he is pioneering again and creating entirely
new forms of healing. A renowned pioneer, engineer and inventor, much
of Bakkens passion lies within the walls of North Hawaii Community
Hospital. Opened in 1996 after nearly ten years of planning, the hospitals
mission was to improve the health and wellness of the people of North
Hawaii. The vision was that it would become the most healing hospital
in the world.
ABILITY Magazines Chet Cooper recently joined Bakken in Hawaii to
tour North Hawaii Community Hospital and to talk about a life that can
only be categorized as remarkable. Sitting together at Bakkens home,
they talk about his dreams, his love affair with Hawaii, and keeping good
Chet Cooper: Is it true you have a theme song?
Earl Bakken: (laughs) The Impossible Dream.
Cooper: And then is it also true that your innovation of numerous life-saving
technologies can actually be traced back to the movie Frankenstein?
Bakken: (laughs) When I was nine years old, I went to the movies and saw
Frankenstein. Thats what got me interested in electricity. Have
you seen it?
Cooper: I saw Young Frankenstein.
Bakken: The original film has a lot of devices with sparks flying. At
the time, I thought, Thats what I want to be, an electrical
engineer. Maybe Ill work with human bodies. That stuck for
the rest of my life.
Cooper: Did you first realize your dreams might be coming true when you
were working on the pacemaker, or did something click for you earlier?
Bakken: There were a lot of things I dreamed up and then made happen.
When I was an adolescent I created a kiss-o-meter. (laughs) I wanted to
measure the intensity of kisses. You had a boy and girl each holding onto
an electrode as they kissed and it measured intensity.
Cooper: Great way to meet girls, all in the name of science. (Bakken laughs)
But, Im guessing a smart kid like you got picked on by the school
Bakken: Well, I had made an early taser, like the ones police use. Mine
put out 20,000 volts.
Cooper: Did you ever get to use it?
Bakken: (smiles) Once or twice, and they never bothered me again. But
I didnt know what I had. Tasers are now three times as strong, using
about 60,000 volts.
Cooper: I wouldnt want to be on the receiving end!
Bakken: (laughs) For sure. These days, Im excited about bringing
along other kids who remind me of the child I was. We have a science bus
for kids that travels around. Its called the Just-Think-Mobile.
And in Earls Garage, another of my programs, we help children get
into electronics. We also have a young inventors workshop. Hopefully
some of the kids will eventually turn into engineers. Thats how
I got started. I created Medtronic in an 800-square-foot garage and now
we have many millions of square feet.
Cooper: Your early inspiration came from a movie, and youve said
your ideas now come to you in your dreams?
Bakken: Let me tell you a little about my dreams. They come to me momentarily
after the lights go out at night and Im in bed. My mind starts going.
I like to write them down to remember them in the morning.
Cooper: In my process, I dont want to necessarily wake up. I think
that if my dream is so brilliant, Ill remember it. Sometimes I do,
sometimes I dont. But your dreams come before you get to sleep?
Bakken: Yes, and thats the only way I can drift off, by getting
Cooper: Each person has cycles of energy. Some people are morning
people and some are night people. My patterns are all
related to caffeine.
Bakken: (laughs) Mine, too. Want some coffee?
Cooper: (laughs) You have this love affair with electricity, but you were
also interested in sound waves?
Bakken: In the 30s I wanted to figure out how radios worked. Id
take them apart and then put them together again. Though I never went
on the air transmitting as an amateur, I do have all the best radios in
the world in terms of reception. I can receive broadcasts from all over
Cooper: Do you have a radio room?
Bakken: Oh, yeah. And I have the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in Minneapolis,
which covers the history of radio. It covers radios from the turn of the
centurythe crystal detection set. Of course, crystal radio doesnt
require any power if you have local stations that are strong enough. I
had a crystal set built into my bed so I could listen with the lights
out after my parents thought I was asleep. I like old-time radio like
Amos n Andy and Fibber McGee and Molly.
During the war, it became known that I had a first-class, radio-telephone
license that I had gotten when I was 17, and they automatically made me
a radar instructor. I taught airborne, high-altitude bombing radar for
Cooper: But your career ultimately flew off in another direction
(Bakken laughs) As a company president youve lead thousands, but
youre actually more of an introvert?
Bakken: I was a typical introvert and didnt like public speaking,
but in my business I had to do it. I didnt like flying, but I had
to do it. Some things you do, even if it isnt your nature.
Cooper: Do you have any secrets that get you through public speaking?
Bakken: I have something that gets their attention at the beginning. It
depends on the speech, but it has to be something that goes along with
the aloha feeling of getting the people close to you.
Cooper: You make an emotional connection right off?
Bakken: You want them to be listening to you, and then you have all the
rules: You want to tell em what youre gonna tell em,
tell em, and then tell em what you told em.
Cooper: A number of your newer ideas regarding health seem to be inspired
by your surroundings.
Bakken: It all comes back to Hawaii. There are seven organizations here
in Hawaii that Im very involved with, all attending to the health
of the people. I have a community-health organization called Five Mountains
Hawaii that targets a lot of local issues, such as drug and alcohol abuse.
Weve also begun to measure community health in every way you can
think of, including automobile accidents.
Cooper: What are some of your findings?
Bakken: Well, for instance, we have a report that says students that dont
finish high school experience an extremely high death-rate in future years.
If they do finish high school, those rates drop a little. If they get
a year of college or trade school, those rates drop by half. And thats
U.S. figures, not just the Big Island. We try hard to encourage parents
to be sure their children get at least 13 years of schooling. Somehow
it awakens the childs brain to look at life more positively.
Cooper: How are you trying to change these statistics locally?
Bakken: We have a lot of activities for kids. Altogether I have about
seven programs, including Earls Garage, which introduces kids to
basic electronics and mechanics. We have classes at an astronomy center
in Hilo, and we teach the Hawaiian language, starting with children three
and four years old. Years back some Americans tried to wipe out that language,
now were reviving it.
We also have a canoe project. Makalii is a two-hulled canoe thats
built in the same way the original ones were built for the Hawaiians who
arrived in 700 A.D. They learned to sail the Pacific by navigating by
the stars, by the wave and bird formations, and by their own intuition.
We take 20 kids out on 10-day trips similar to an Outward Bound experience.
They have no cabins or toilets, and they have to prepare their own food.
Cooper: So youre bringing them back to the days before videogames
and cell phones?
Bakken: Exactly. They have nothing to guide them other than the stars.
Of course, they have a radio if they get in real trouble. But generally
they find their way as they learn about how their ancestors first arrived
on these shores in much the same manner. It can be a very rough trip,
especially if they run into a storm. They come back from this adventure
Cooper: Why did you choose Hawaii, and specifically the Big Island?
in ABILITY Magazine
Articles in the Frankenstein issue; Emme AronsonCouples
Fighting Depression; Car WarsMay the Force be Green and a Q&A
with Toyota; Humor Therapy; Pet Peeves; All the World's a Stage, But How
Do I Get a Ticket to the ShowDisability Legal Rights Center; Iraq
VetsHealing on the Slopes; Virginia TechLessions to be Learned;
Chop ChopTry a Raw Food Diet; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events