The History of the Defibrillator & AEDs

Defibrillation, which describes a process of restoring and normalising heart function via electric shock to the heart after cardiac arrest, was developed through years of innovation and scientific study.

Modern defibrillation has the power to save lives. You may have seen automated external defibrillators (AEDs) located around your building, workplace, school, or even on public sites. It’s thanks to years of innovation that we now have access to life-preserving equipment like AEDs to help those suffering from sudden cardiac arrest.

Much of the innovation around AEDs and defibrillation dates from 1899 to the 1950’s.

Over time, here’s how defibrillators and AEDs have evolved into what we use today.

Early Defibrillation (1899 – 1930)

Throughout the 1900s, life expectancy in the UK steadily rose, doubling in number over the following two decades. The major deviations from this were typically caused by worldwide flus or virus epidemics, such as smallpox and the Spanish Flu. But, as people lived longer, caused by medical and sanitary advancements, the risk of fatal heart diseases (and ultimately heart failure) also became a growing concern across the globe.

When Was Cardiac Arrest First Discovered?

In 1899, a paper called “Cardiac Failure and Sudden Death” proposed by British scientist, John A McWilliam, first suggested that ventricular fibrillation was the leading “mechanism” for sudden cardiac death(SCD).

After this discovery, which was thought to contribute to nearly a quarter of human deaths, sudden heart failure became a worldwide subject of study. In the same year – in 1899 at the time of McWilliam’s study – another two physiologists expanded on the work of previous experiments that involved animal research and electric defibrillation. From the University of Geneva, Switzerland, Jean-Louis Prevost and Frederic Batelli contributed to early ideas about SCD studying how smaller electric shocks could potentially reverse heart failure.

Who Invented the Defibrillator?

Studying at Johns Hopkins School of Engineering, the historically important William Kouwenhoven was credited with inventing the first defibrillator in 1930. He studied the effects of electric shocks and how they can revive the human heart, which later inspired the first external defibrillator.  

Defibrillation on Patients (1947 – 1950)

Defibrillation would become an ongoing, respectable study, and research was conducted on animals throughout the early 1900s until the first human patient in 1947.

An American cardiac surgeon named Claude Beck was credited with proving the viability of McWilliam’s study by using defibrillation on human patients. Beck’s background was well established in fibrillation research, where he spent decades studying heart massages as a potential treatment for disease. Aware of early defibrillation experiments on animals, Beck was curious to understand the affect it would have as a treatment on patient’s lives.

In 1947, Beck was treating a 14-year-old male patient with a chest defect, who’s heart suddenly failed toward the end of an operation. To save a life, Beck used open-heart defibrillation to restore the boy’s heart rhythms to a normal rate, where the patient was eventually able to make a full recovery. This even captured national headlines, marking a significant medical advancement. Beck had given credibility to the role of defibrillation as effective treatment in preventing heart failure.

The First Portable External Defibrillator (1950 – 1961)

After experimenting with AC power, Kouwenhoven was able to develop a modern, portable defibrillator. The first model could deliver 480-volt shocks safely to the human heart, but the weight of the equipment (120 kg) was too impractical for regular use.

During this time, the 1950s, defibrillation became focussed on saving human lives, outgrowing its status as an experiment. 

In 1961, Kouwenhoven’s team was able to innovate the original model, reducing its weight to only 45 lbs.

The Invention of External Defibrillation

Kouwenhoven’s defibrillator was later updated by Paul Zoll, another interested in research in portable defibrillation. But Zoll’s ideas at the time were considered radical – for example, he preferred closed chest resuscitation over open chest defibrillation, which was more popular at the time.. These would later become the hallmark to resuscitation techniques used nowadays by modern health practitioners.

Zoll’s work in the late 1950s set the tone of contemporary defibrillation, which inspired research to innovate closed chest techniques.

The First Time Portable Defibrillators are Used in the Field (1960s)

In 1957 Dr Frank Pantridge, who worked across hospitals and universities in Belfast, and his colleague, Dr John Geddes had introduced CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) to the medical field.

These studies, plus additional research, showed Dr Pantridge that pre-hospital care for those suffering from cardiac arrest was imperative to their long-term success. This led him to create a Mobile Coronary Care Unit (MCCU) that was the first portable defibrillator, a specialist ambulance that was equipped with specialist cardiovascular care.

Then, in 1965, he installed an ambulance in Belfast with the first remote defibrillator, that weighed about 70kg, and used a capacitator designed for NASA.

Did You Know… 

Despite these advancements in portable AEDs, it wasn’t until the 1990s that ambulances across the UK would have these devices as standard.

The Modern AED (1979 – Present Day)

In 1979, Physicians Arch Diack and W. Stanley Welborn developed a public-facing, safe defibrillation unit. Introducing these devices to untrained civilians for scenarios that call for emergency treatment, these physicians created Heart-Aid, a public AED device.

Despite its lack of commercial success, this created the foundation for AEDs – including pads, voice coaching and heart rhythm assessment. The ongoing innovation of the 1900s resulted in the devices that we see today, including the way we think about safe defibrillation as a lifesaving technique.

A lesson from history, external defibrillation and AEDs are still evolving through constant innovation – they continue to become lighter, more suitable to a variety of scenarios, and even capable of operating in an easy, low-maintenance way.

Are You Looking for a Defibrillator Supplier?

Aero Healthcare focusses on providing the highest quality products and support at every point of your journey, including training and installation.