Alexander Muirhead is reported to have attached wires to a feverish patient's wrist to obtain a record of the patient's heartbeat while studying for his Doctor of Science (in electricity) in 1872 at St Bartholomew's Hospital. This activity was directly recorded and visualized using a Lippmann capillary electrometer by the British physiologist John Burdon Sanderson. The first to systematically approach the heart from an electrical point-of-view was Augustus Waller, working in St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, London. His electrocardiograph machine consisted of a Lippmann capillary electrometer fixed to a projector. The trace from the heartbeat was projected onto a photographic plate which was itself fixed to a toy train. This allowed a heartbeat to be recorded in real time. In 1911 he still saw little clinical application for his work.
An initial breakthrough came when Willem Einthoven, working in Leiden, Netherlands, used the string galvanometer that he invented in 1903. This device was much more sensitive than both the capillary electrometer that Waller used and the string galvanometer that had been invented separately in 1897 by the French engineer Clément Ader. Rather than using today's self-adhesive electrodes Einthoven's subjects would immerse each of their limbs into containers of salt solutions from which the ECG was recorded.
Einthoven assigned the letters P, Q, R, S and T to the various deflections, and described the electrocardiographic features of a number of cardiovascular disorders. In 1924, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery.
Though the basic principles of that era are still in use today, there have been many advances in electrocardiography over the years. The instrumentation, for example, has evolved from a cumbersome laboratory apparatus to compact electronic systems that often include computerized interpretation of the electrocardiogram.