Persistence makes all the difference, whether in history or science. And it is that persistence that can change the world, in ways both large and subtle. The work of engineer Otis Boykin helped facilitate a revolution in electronics, from the pacemaker to guided missiles.
Boykin was born in Dallas in August 1920. His parents had very modest means but worked very hard. His mother was a maid, and his father was a carpenter. However, his mother’s health was weak, and she died of heart failure when Boykin was just a year old. His father struggled on and eventually became a minister.
Boykin proved to be a brilliant and hard-working student. He graduated at the top of his class from the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. He won a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, a respected, historically African-American university. While a student at Fisk, he worked at the university’s aeronautics lab, where researchers devised new components and designs for aircraft. He graduated in 1941.
Not long after graduation, he moved to Chicago where he started working for a number of engineering firms. He began working with and developing new electrical systems. By the end of World War II, Boykin decided to move on and start his own company, Boykin-Fruth, Inc., a research and consulting firm. He also decided to expand his educational horizons and began graduate school at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1946. In spite of his passion for learning, he had to drop out the next year because of high costs.
Boykin began working with and developing new types of resistors, electrical components that regulate the flow of electricity in a circuit. Resistors were a critical part of the electronics revolution that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as improvements helped make all sorts of electrical devices more durable, more efficient and cheaper.
In 1959, Boykin received his first of 26 patents for a wire precision resistor. In 1961, he received another patent for a new, inexpensive, and more efficient resistor.
Computer giant IBM quickly became interested in Boykin’s new resistors and began incorporating them into their new generation of mainframe computers and experimental computers and circuits. As a result, IBM began to make computers that were smaller and faster. His components also began being used in such products as television sets. Before long, the military became interested and started using his resistors in new guided missile systems.
Perhaps his greatest impact was his work with the pacemaker. The pacemaker itself is a simple device with two components: the pulse generator, which contains a battery that sends the electrical impulses to the heart, which are regulated by Boykin’s resistors, and the electrical leads connecting to the heart. The ability to regulate the heartbeat through the resistor makes the pacemaker practical. Pacemakers today are used to treat abnormal heartbeats, heart failure and a variety of other heart ailments. They are installed in relatively minor procedures. Pacemakers are sometimes installed temporarily for patients recovering from heart attacks. Thousands of people now have pacemakers, saving countless lives.
In the mid-1960s, he left for France to continue working as a consultant. Boykin continued developing new electrical components and other devices. He also invented a chemical air filter and a theft-proof cash register.
In his later years, he returned to Chicago where he continued to tinker with new devices. However, his health started to fail. In spite of his work with the pacemaker that saved countless others, Boykin’s genius could not save himself from his own heart problems. His condition was beyond the reach of medicine as it existed at that point. He died of heart failure in 1982 at the age of 62.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@ gmail.com.