Earl Bakken interview with Chet Cooper Medtronic Parkinson's ad

A young boy sits in a dark theater staring wide-eyed. Completely fixated, he is entranced by the flickering images of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Gripping the arms of his seat as electricity flashes across the expansive screen with a thunderous clatter, the boy gapes as the creation—and his own imagination—come 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 world’s 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 Bakken’s passion lies within the walls of North Hawaii Community Hospital. Opened in 1996 after nearly ten years of planning, the hospital’s 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 Magazine’s 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 Bakken’s home, they talk about his dreams, his love affair with Hawaii, and keeping good company.

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. That’s what got me interested in electricity. Have you seen it?

Cooper: I saw Young Frankenstein.

(both laugh)

Bakken: The original film has a lot of devices with sparks flying. At the time, I thought, “That’s what I want to be, an electrical engineer. Maybe I’ll 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, I’m guessing a smart kid like you got picked on by the school bullies?

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 didn’t know what I had. Tasers are now three times as strong, using about 60,000 volts.

Cooper: I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end!

Bakken: (laughs) For sure. These days, I’m excited about bringing along other kids who remind me of the child I was. We have a science bus for kids that travels around. It’s called the Just-Think-Mobile. And in Earl’s Garage, another of my programs, we help children get into electronics. We also have a young inventor’s workshop. Hopefully some of the kids will eventually turn into engineers. That’s 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 you’ve 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 I’m in bed. My mind starts going. I like to write them down to remember them in the morning.

Cooper: In my process, I don’t want to necessarily wake up. I think that if my dream is so brilliant, I’ll remember it. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But your dreams come before you get to sleep?

Bakken: Yes, and that’s the only way I can drift off, by getting them out.

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. I’d 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 the world.

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 century—the crystal detection set. Of course, crystal radio doesn’t 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 three years.

Cooper: But your career ultimately flew off in another direction… (Bakken laughs) As a company president you’ve lead thousands, but you’re actually more of an introvert?

Bakken: I was a typical introvert and didn’t like public speaking, but in my business I had to do it. I didn’t like flying, but I had to do it. Some things you do, even if it isn’t 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 you’re 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 I’m 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. We’ve 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 don’t 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 that’s 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 child’s 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 Earl’s 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 we’re reviving it.

We also have a canoe project. Makalii is a two-hulled canoe that’s 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 you’re 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 very changed.

Cooper: Why did you choose Hawaii, and specifically the Big Island?
... continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Articles in the Frankenstein issue; Emme Aronson—Couples Fighting Depression; Car Wars—May 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 Show—Disability Legal Rights Center; Iraq Vets—Healing on the Slopes; Virginia Tech—Lessions to be Learned; Chop Chop—Try a Raw Food Diet; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

Excerpts from the Frankenstein issue:

Earl Bakken Interview

Road to Qatar — Allen Ruckers Reports

Stroke — Dr. Winstein's Recovery Research

Augie Nieto's — Quest to Coquer ALS

Chop Chop — Try a Raw Food Diet

Humor Therapy — Pet Peeves

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