Otis Boykin’s Precision Passives Propelled The Pacemaker

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The simplest ideas can be the ones that change the world. For Otis Boykin, it was a new way to make wirewound precision resistors. Just like that, he altered the course of electronics with his ideas about what a resistor could be. Now his inventions are in everything from household appliances and electronics to missile guidance computers.

While we like to geek out about developments in resistor tech, Otis’ most widely notable contribution to electronics is the control unit he designed for pacemakers, which regulate a person’s heartbeat. Pacemakers are a real-time clock for humans, and he made them more precise than ever.

Street Smarts and Book Smarts

Otis Frank Boykin was born August 29th, 1920 in Dallas, Texas to Sarah and Walter Boykin. Otis’ father was a carpenter who later became a preacher. His mother Sarah was a maid, and she died of heart failure when Otis was only a year old.

Otis in an undated photograph. Image via Philadelphia Tribune

Not much is known about Otis’ childhood, but he must have had some foundational interest in electronics and the drive to go after a career in the field. We do know that Otis graduated as the valedictorian of Booker T. Washington high school in 1938. Then he moved to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Fisk University on a scholarship. As part of the deal, he worked as an assistant in the university’s aerospace lab, testing automatic controls for various aircraft.

Otis graduated from Fisk in 1941 and moved to Chicago to work as a lab assistant for Majestic Radio & TV. Before long, he was promoted to factory foreman. This position lasted a few years until he got hired as a research engineer at P.J. Nilson Labs in nearby Oak Park. During this time, he enrolled in the Illinois Institute of Technology. Otis only attended graduate school for two years — it’s unclear whether he dropped out because of financial problems, or he left because another job opportunity came along.

For the next fifteen years, Otis worked around Illinois and Indiana as a consultant in various radio and electronic positions. In 1946, Otis started a short-lived electronics research laboratory with one of his mentors, Hal Fruth, before the two were hired by the Monson Manufacturing Corporation.

Image via US Patent #2634352

Resistance is Utile

In the early 1950s, Otis invented a new, more precise type of wirewound resistor and applied for a patent. Wirewound resistors rely on coils of wire, and the loops introduce unwanted inductance to the circuit. Before Otis came along, wirewound resistors were difficult to make and thus quite expensive.

Otis’ wirewound resistors were made up of wire drawn out and wound into a skein. By twisting the ends of the skein and inserting thin sheets of plastic between the loops, Otis was able to minimize the resistors’ inductance and reactance. In the patent, he describes several variations on this theme with different types of housing and connectors.

A few years later, Otis patented another, even better resistor that was both cheap and easy to manufacture. It was tough enough to withstand extreme temperature changes and physical shocks without breaking or losing precision. This resistor was ideal for an array of applications. The US military used it in missile guidance computers, and IBM put it in their mainframes.

Chest x-ray showing a pacemaker. Image CC BY-SA 3.0

Setting the Pace for Life

He continued to pursue other inventions up until the end of his life. These included components like capacitors, a chemical air filter, and a burglar-proof cash register. But Otis Boykin’s most important invention was inspired by his mother’s death, and is currently keeping a large number of people’s hearts ticking accurately.

In 1964, he invented a control unit for pacemakers, which maintain a steady cadence for the human heart, regulating the heartbeat. Before this, pacemakers weren’t as reliable.

The sad irony is that Otis himself died of heart failure in 1982. His influence lives on in all the people who are alive because of his contributions to technology.

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