My Grandfather’s Ghost In The Watch

Earlier today, Apple announced a raft of new phones, which no doubt will excite a lot of people. Apple also announced a new version of its Apple Watch today—Series 4.

One of the watch’s new features is very near and dear to me: the conductive pads on the back which help the watch capture electrical activity and display it as an electrocardiograph.

Image credit: Apple

Back in the late 1950s, my grandfather, Donald Rowley, co-invented the gel electrode alongside fellow pathologist Seymour Glagov. From his 2013 obituary published by the University of Chicago’s news office:

At the time, there were no tools to monitor heartbeats over long periods; so they invented one. They worked with an undergraduate student at UChicago and a watch repairman to convert a spring-wound pocket watch into a portable pulse counter and built tiny electrical sensors that could be glued reliably to the chest—the first gel electrodes. The gadget later would be scaled up with help from the Elgin National Watch Co. and Illinois Bell Telephone.

This simple device, no bigger than a deck of cards, accurately could record the electrical activity of the heart for more than 24 hours. It heralded the birth of ambulatory cardiology. Rowley and colleagues described their counter in a report to Science in 1959. They performed additional studies on 100 volunteers, showing enormous variation in daily heart rates.

They didn’t patent their invention because, as my grandfather put it, it was “simply not part of the academic culture.”

No longer a wind-up device made of watch parts, a descendent of my grandfather’s ticker-tracker lives on in watch form, which I think is pretty wild.

Author: Jason D. Rowley

As I mentioned elsewhere, I wear a lot of hats. Currently, I'm interested in VC data, early stage startups, and journalism. Previously I've been a blogger, designer, researcher, startup founder, (temporary) college dropout, connector, occasional branding designer and amateur chef.

Leave a Reply