Celebrity Invention: Paul Winchell's Artificial Heart

Tired of sharing the spotlight with his two dummies, the ventriloquist went to work designing one of the first ersatz organs

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for patentsrichfamous_280(2).jpgSome celebrities aren't just pretty faces. A few of them are also touched with that Yankee prowess for tinkering and invention. In this weekly series, we introduce you to the Patents of the Rich and Famous. And maybe you learn a little bit about how patent literature works along the way.

Inventor: Paul Winchell

Known For: An actor recognized more for his voice than his face, Paul Winchell rose to fame as a ventriloquist. He had two popular dummy pals, Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff, with whom he performed. In a 1954 interview Winchell admitted he didn't enjoy sharing his spotlight:

Gradually I found myself faced with the dilemma that comes to most ventriloquists. I was snowed under by the personality of the dummy. Mail began to pour in to 'Paul Mahoney' and 'Jerry Winchell.' I was Jerry's straight man.

Everybody knew who Jerry was, but they were beginning to forget the name of the guy who operated him. To that extent it was jealousy.

Here's Winchell performing with Mahoney:

After Winchell's career as a ventriloquist ended he continued putting his voice to good use, voicing Tigger in Disney's Winnie the Pooh and the evil sorcerer Gargamel and Baby Smurf in the Smurfs.

He holds over thirty patents.

Invented Apparatus: "Artificial heart"

We already unearthed the world's first artificial heart transplanted inside a human body, but Winchell holds the patent for one of the first artificial heart devices ever made, which he developed with surgeons working at the University of Utah. They created a non-toxic device that Winchell hoped could replace a failing heart for a working organ.

As the patent explains, the ersatz organ works something like this:

A mechanical heart system for installation in the human or animal body, embodying an artificial heart as such, with an electric motor for driving the heart disposed outside the body with a drive shaft for the artificial heart extending through the body from the artificial heart to the motor carried externally of the body, all elements of the apparatus contained within the body being insulated or covered with material inert to body fluids.

A battery-operated motor worn outside the body connects to a non-toxic bag inside the body, which mimics the pumping action of a real heart.

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Rationale Behind Invention: Having met Dr. Henry Heimlich, of Heimlich maneuver fame, Winchell pitched the idea to his medical contact. He hoped the device could replace a failing heart:

The present invention contemplates an artificial heart that can be mounted inside the body of a patient as a replacement or substitute for a removed heart so that the patient may live a substantially normal as well as a moderately active life for an indefinite period of time.

Unfortunately, the mechanism never made it that far, never supporting human life for any indefinite periods of time.

There is some controversy over who really invented the first artificial heart. Many cite the Jarvik 7, an air-powered pump invented by Dr. Robert Jarvik, as the original faux organ. However, Winchell claims his patent influenced Dr. Jarvik. Today, people use devices much like the Jarvik. Winchell may hold the patent, but Jarvik has the legacy.

Off-label Uses: Dick Cheney has a new heart pump that, according to the New York Times, will keep him from ever returning to full strength again; the heart will never beat at the same level. Imagine the former vice president walking around with Winchell's artificial heart battery pack slapped onto his chest. He'd look like Darth Vader, but it could help.

Future Directions: In Winchell's autobiography he explains that making his artificial heart didn't differ much from building his dummies:

Odd as it may seem, the heart wasn't that different from building a dummy; the valves and chambers were not unlike the moving and eyes and closing mouth of a puppet.

Winchell's artificial heart motor could use some personality. Everyone who grew up with The Wizard of Oz can think of at least one character that would appreciate a good heart and had plenty of personality to spare. The Tin Man: Winchell's new spokesperson.

View the complete Celebrity Invention archive.