Joe’s Journal: A Lucky Break vs. Pure Luck

“Luck, chance, and catastrophe affect business as they do all human endeavors. But luck never built a business.”

—Peter F. Drucker


I have written, from time to time, about different aspects of the invention of the Implantable Cardiac Pacemaker by Wilson Greatbatch who died last September 27 at 92 years of age. Gratebatch was the father of my sister-in-law, who has provided me with much valuable information about her father.

A Cornell educated electrical engineer, Gratebatch invented a device that was successfully implanted into a human being by cardiologist William Chardack in 1960 in Buffalo, New York.

In The Washington Post’s obituary of Greatbach, Kirk Jeffrey, a Carleton College professor and the author of Machines in Our Heart, ranked Greatbatch as ”one of the greatest American inventors of the 20th century.” Yet Greatbatch, at a 1991 dinner party with Peter Drucker in Claremont, referred to his invention as the result of a mistake.

Wilson explained that he was working to repair a heart monitor and mistakenly replaced a worn resistor with one 100 times more powerful. He then saw and heard on his oscilloscope contractions and relaxations that resembled a human heart beat, thus providing the missing technology needed to complete his long quest for the implantable pacemaker.

Drucker, hearing Greatbatch’s explanation, immediately shot back: “But you recognized it as a heart beat.” In other words, Greatbatch had prepared himself for many years to recognize a heart beat, and so it was not entirely luck, but rather a lucky break.

Greatbatch went on to develop the lithium-iodine battery that extended the life of the power source safely beyond a decade. That, in turn, allowed him to establish a successful business designing and manufacturing improved pacemaker batteries.

I have since investigated a number of claims that an invention or business was the result of luck, such as the development of caulking by Thiokol or Post-it Notes by 3M. More often than not, I have found truth in the words of Louis Pasteur: “Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Drucker, with his insights on systematic innovation and successful management, also knew this to be the case.

—Joe Maciariello