Shared by David R. Gunderson
Steve was the son of Evelyn (Madsen) and Charles Jacobsen of Mt. Pleasant.
Stephen C. Jacobsen, Engineer, Roboticist and Biomedical Pioneer passed away at 75.
Jacobsen, Distinguished Professor of Engineering at the University of Utah, was at the forefront of robotic and biomedical device design.
He was the biomechanical engineer behind a number of firsts in medicine: the first artificial heart implanted in a human, the first artificial wearable kidney, and the Utah Arm, which allowed amputees to precisely control an artificial arm with tiny twitches of a chest or shoulder muscle.
Like Tony Stark, the inventor-entrepreneur in “Iron Man,” Jacobsen often took on whimsical design challenges just for the fun of it. His most successful company, Sarcos (now Raytheon-Sarcos), founded in 1983, built mechanized dinosaurs for the Universal Orlando “Jurassic Park” ride and the animatronic pirates for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disney theme parks. His company was also commissioned by Wet Design to engineer the robotic controllers for the spectacular Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas.
“The robot we built for Bellagio weighed 700,000 pounds with 125 individual robotic fountains that collectively had 1,130 motions that were under control,” Jacobsen told a Salt Lake Tribune reporter in 2011.
Jacobsen assembled eclectic teams of engineers, prototype builders, programmers and artists to dazzle military leaders with innovative solutions for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) challenges. For remote surveillance in enemy territory, one team designed a pole-climbing, robotic snake mounted with a spy camera. But the invention that continues to receive the most YouTube love, with well over a million views, is the Sarcos exoskeleton suit. This wearable robot suit power-assists soldiers so that they can repeatedly pick up heavy pallets of supplies without tiring. The online videos of this technology were so impressive, that the production artists for the “Iron Man” film visited Sarcos to get ideas for the film.
“You’re carrying yourself; the robotic suit carries the load,” Jacobsen said in a 2010 interview.
Jacobsen was also a pioneer in the development of extremely small medical devices and surgical tools. He designed micro-pumps for the wearable drug delivery and blood-chemistry sensing. He refined wearable monitoring systems for remotely assessing the location and physiological state of soldiers in the field. He developed a surgical guide wire and catheter that enables less invasive neurological procedures. And he built prototypes of miniature cameras that could be swallowed or inserted into a body to wirelessly transmit photos of organs, bones, and other biological systems.
Jacobsen was born in Salt Lake City on July 15, 1940. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father was a commercial artist and amateur inventor. Jacobsen grew up around tools and had a passion for taking things apart to see how they worked.
“As a teenager, he completely disassembled an MG sports car in our basement, then painstakingly put it back together again,” said his sister, Charlyn Dalebout.
Jacobsen majored in mechanical engineering at the University of Utah, but at the end of his junior year university administrators asked him to leave because of poor grades and an unfortunate practical joke that resulted in a large explosion in the engineering building.
He was given a second chance by Wayne Brown, Ph.D., former dean of engineering, who called him into his office and said, “Steve, you are the smartest kid I have ever had the privilege of teaching. If you can keep a ‘B’ average, we’ll get you back into school and get you a degree.”
Jacobsen graduated in 1970 and went on to get a masters degree under the mentorship of surgeon Willem J. Kolff, M.D., and engineer-physician Clifford Kwan-Gett, M.D. Both were doing pioneering work on mechanical hearts and kidneys in a new division of artificial organs at the University of Utah. Jacobsen did early prototyping on what eventually became the Jarvik-7, the first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human.
“Steve saw beauty in nature and in motion, especially in the motion of mechanical devices,” Kwan-Gett said.
Jacobsen was accepted into the engineering Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) under the direction of Robert Mann, Ph.D., the renowned engineer and rocket scientist who designed some of the first electro-mechanical artificial limbs and prostheses. In this lab Jacobsen learned the complex algorithms for robotic control theory and how to apply them to body mechanics. He shared an office and design ideas with Woodie Flowers, now an MIT professor emeritus and the former host for the PBS television series “Scientific American Frontiers.”
“Steve could see so many things at once. He saw parallels that crossed domains. His limit pushing was infectious,” said Flowers.
He is survived by his wife, Lynn Jacobsen; his sister, Charlyn Dalebout; and two children Peter Jacobsen and Genevieve Boyles; and two grandchildren, Aiden and Avery Boyles.
Jacobsen’s impact has been recognized through many national and state awards. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists. He won the Leonardo Da Vinci Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Pioneer of Robotics Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, and the Utah Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology. In 2012, Jacobsen received one of five “Most Prolific Inventor Awards” by the University of Utah’s Technology Commercialization Office for having more than 200 inventions. He was recently honored with the Utah Genius Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as the University of Utah Innovation and Impact Award. He has held the rank of distinguished professor in Mechanical Engineering since 1996, research professor for the Department of Bioengineering since 1983 and research professor for the Department of Computer Science since 1992. He was the director for the Center for Engineering Design between 1973 and 2007. He has 170 technical publications, 276 technical invited presentations, more than 200 patents issued in the U.S., 123 foreign patents, and 50 trademarks issued. He is the founder of nine companies (Sterling Research Corp., Raytheon-Sarcos, Sarcos Research Corp., Micro-Drugs, Inc., Eye-Port Corp., Motion Control, Inc., IOMED, Inc., MicroJect Corp., Precision Vascular Systems, Inc.).