Until the late 1800s, medical scientists could only record heart activity by directly examining the heart. It was not possible on a living patient. In 1887, British physiologist Augustus Waller discovered it was possible to record heart activity from the skin’s surface. He used an instrument called a capillary electrometer to trace heart signals onto photographic plates.
Dutch physiologist Willem Einthoven was inspired by Waller’s experiments. In 1902 he developed an instrument to record traces of the heart’s activity. His string galvanometer was critical to the manufacture of early electrocardiograph machines in 1908.
Early ECG machines were cumbersome and hard to use. Einthoven’s first machine required five people to operate. The person monitored had to place each limb in a bucket of salt water, so it was impractical for patient use. Improvements such as electrodes attached to the skin’s surface meant machines became smaller, portable and more reliable.
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