Invention Story of Electrocardiography (ECG) by Willem Einthoven

Invention of Electrocardiography (ECG)

Have you ever wondered about how medical tools and equipments were designed? Ever raised a question if they were designed by a physician himself or a mechanical scholar? If yes, here is an interesting article that will fit your inquisitive nature. Hope you would have come across this device, the most essential electronic medical device, the Electrocardiogram or ECG. Read further to know about the invention story behind this most useful tool.

Let us start with a simple definition and a few aspects on the ECG.

What is Electrocardiogram?

 The basic concept of electrocardiography is attaching electrodes to the body’s surface and measuring the electric impulses of the heart. The device used for this purpose is the electrocardiogram. The transthoracic interpretation of the activity of the heart for a certain period of time that is detected with the help of electrodes attached to the skin’s surface and recorded by a device that is externally attached is called electrocardiography. These days, ECG is used for both electrocardiography and electrocardiogram.

The rate and the regularity of the heart beat are recorded by means of an ECG. Many further diagnoses that can be made out of an ECG are the size and the position of the four cardiac chambers, any blockages or damages in the heart, and the effectiveness of the drugs and devices used in cardiac treatment.

Most often, ECG is employed only with humans. But for the purpose of research or even for medicinal purpose it may be employed on animals too.

Who Were the People Behind its Invention?

 Unlike other electronic devices, electrocardiogram involves the idea of a single person. Hence there were not many controversies about its invention. William Einthoven was the brain behind this great invention. It is impossible to talk about the story of the ECG without touching the life of its inventor.

Willem Einthoven


Willem Einthoven
Willem Einthoven

Willem Eithoven was born on 1860 in the month of May in Indonesia. He had five siblings. Though he was the third child, he was the eldest son. His father was Jacob Einthoven; Jacob was a military medical officer. Einthoven was brought up and educated at Groningen, Netherlands. He was later seen as a parish doctor in Semarang. His mother, Louise.M.C.C de vogel was a politician’s daughter.

In his very little age of ten, Williem Einthoven lost his father, Jacob Einthoven. With his five other siblings and Williem Einthoven, his mother moved to Utrecht. He joined the medical school in Utrecht in the year of 1878.  Einthoven kicked his bucket on September 28, 1927 at Leiden, Netherlands.

When and How was ECG Invented?

 Einthoven kept struggling with his effort of designing an electrocardiogram right from the year 1889. In the year of 1902, he succeeded in publishing the first electrocardiogram which was recorded on a string galvanometer.

On March 22nd 1905, Einthoven began transmitting electrocardiogram from hospital to his laboratory. That was the year when the first electrocardiogram signaling was recorded from a healthy man.

What Favored the Invention of Electrocardiogram?

Since Einthoven’s father was a physician; there is no doubt on him taking up the same position. He was always attracted by a few specific people whose ideas and innovations influenced him for a greater extent. They were the physicist, Christophorus Henricus Didericus Buys-Ballot, the anatomist, Willem Koster, an ophthalmologist, Herman Snellen and finally, Franz Cornelis Donders.

In the very beginning, Einthoven worked under Snellen as his assistant. They worked in a renowned eye hospital, Gasthuis voor ooglidders. He has written “remarques sur le mechanism de l’articulation du coude”. This had particular remarks on the joints of elbow.

On July 4th, 1885, Einthoven obtained his doctorate in Medicine. The same year in the month of December, he was appointed as a Physiology professor at Leiden. Soon, in January 1886, he qualified as a general medical practitioner. He then married his cousin Frederique Jeanne Louise de vogel. They had three daughters and a son.

Early Researches and the Birth of ECG

 Augustus, a researcher, first made an experiment on capillary electrometer and succeeded in registering the impulse of heart. But, he confessed and announced that he was not able to correctly capture the signals and get the real picture of it.

It was Etenne Jules Marey who recorded the heart signals with the use of mercury capillary electrometer. But, it was Waller who successfully recorded the signals of a human heart for the first time. In 1889, Waller demonstrated his capillary electrometer at the First International Congress for Physiologists. Einthoven was also an audience. In 1895, Einthoven thought of repeating the same experiment as Waller and he registered the sounds of human heart too. He called this as the electrocardiogram.

The First ECG

 Employing fine quartz materials, Einthoven designed a new galvanometer for creating electrocardiograms. The quartz materials were lined up as strings and were coated with silver. It is really a shocking fact that his galvanometer made of quartz strings weighed up to 600 pounds.  Clement Ader came up with a similar invention. But, Einthoven came to know that his electrocardiogram was a thousand times more sensitive.

The string galvanometer has an essential component: a thin quartz filament coated with silver. This string was stretched and was kept under a very strong magnetic field. The thickness of the quartz filament raged up to 3 microns. When electric current was allowed to pass through the set up, a movement was observed, which can be photographed. This was the only advancement over the capillary galvanometer. By loosening or tightening the strings, the sensitivity of the galvanometer was adjusted.

Further Research on the ECG

 Einthoven’s research on the respiratory changes in electrocardiogram paved way for the equilateral triangle scheme. The size and the position of the heart could be easily recognized with the information received from the three contacts. The calculations were done by considering the potential differences. Einthoven and his son worked on further advancements. The major experiment that he carried out with his son was with the reception of radio telegram broadcast by machine transmitter. AS string of 0.1 micron thickness was employed in this case.

Einthoven was awarded the Nobel Prize for his life changing invention in the year of 1924.

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