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Wizards: Cupertino vs. Menlo Park

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Vaclav Smil’s article ‘Steve Jobs Is No Edison’ will offend many, but it raises important questions that need answers.

In a land bereft of political heroes, Steve Jobs’s death has inspired a rare outpouring of national grief. Vaclav Smil’s “Steve Jobs Is No Edison” (The American, September 29) will offend many. But it raises important questions that need answers. I believe there is still a strong case for ranking Steve Jobs with the Wizard of Menlo Park, who like Jobs was one of history’s greatest masters of media relations.

If invention is the competitive display of technological versatility, economic influence, and creation of employment, Thomas Edison remains the American champion. If you doubt this, compare Edison’s 1,093 patents to Steve Jobs’s 317, many of them design patents rather than the more fundamental utility patents. If Jobs is rightly praised for his creative use of failure, Edison’s own unsuccessful ventures in mining and concrete house construction also had positive spinoffs. Both men collaborated with large research and development teams. Putting their lifetime efforts side by side, what’s striking is Edison’s breadth and versatility compared to Jobs’s tight focus on a carefully limited set of challenges. And Smil is certainly right that Edison’s inventions provided a vast technological infrastructure on which Jobs’s own innovations are based—including, of course, the sale of copyright-protected audiovisual works. In that sense, no, Jobs was indeed no Edison.

Given the state of the economy, if I had to choose between a new Jobs and a new Edison, I’d take the latter. But I’d never say Steve Jobs is no Edison.

Still, Jobs was, in a number of ways, at least an equally remarkable innovator. First, integration of other people's ideas into an ingeniously marketed package is a notable skill in itself and can be highly transformative. Isaac Singer's sewing machine was based on a patent pool and his own knowledge of showmanship as a failed actor. Yet the productivity increase even from early machine sewing was one of the greatest in the history of technology—up to 500 percent—and no previous machine had been practical for industrial or general household use.

Second, while both men were called ruthless at times, Edison was capable of abusing his celebrity status to deny his collaborators fair moral and financial recognition. One of them, the Croatian-born physicist Nikola Tesla, claimed that Edison had promised a $50,000 reward for solving a problem in electrical generation, then told him on successful completion of the project that the bonus had been “an American joke.” Of Edison’s attempt to claim credit for streetcar and railroad electrification, slighting his former associate Frank Sprague, his fellow pioneer Elihu Thomson wrote: “Great has been the work of Edison in various fields to which he has given attention, it seems to me that the attempt to spread his fame over fields in which he has done very little, and sometimes done the wrong thing, is to be sincerely deprecated.”1 The descendants of Frank Sprague—I know one of them—have never forgiven him, and the growing legion of Tesla fans also won't. To my knowledge there are no credibly comparable accusations against Jobs. Yes, the Mac's graphic interface was first developed at Xerox PARC for the Xerox Alto. I even saw it demonstrated there a few years before the Mac was launched. But Jobs never claimed exclusive credit for the idea.

Integration of other people's ideas into an ingeniously marketed package is a notable skill in itself and can be highly transformative.

Third, Jobs was far more adaptable than Edison in his thinking. Jobs repeatedly cut prices while improving performance; Edison was also technically demanding, but his inflexibility made his phonographs costly instruments, incompatible with other manufacturers’ records in the 1920s. In the same decade he scoffed at broadcast radio; his phonograph company closed soon after the Crash, and Edison's heirs had begun radio production too late to be competitive. Compare Jobs's switch to Intel processors. Edison was a good filmmaker but failed to understand the inevitability of the star system, treating actors generically to save money. His motion picture patent trust also made the first use of hired gangsters to intimidate competitors. Jobs’s creation of iTunes was a rare coup in media history.

Fourth, and most importantly, Jobs was a different kind of innovator, designing from the outside in, from user interface to the often-improvised technological core, rather than expanding from basic electrical and mechanical ideas. (Edison was surprised that the phonograph turned out to be primarily an entertainment device rather than a dictating machine.) Nobody has ever done it better. Dieter Rams, whose postwar household products for the German appliance maker Braun helped inspire the iPod aesthetic (designed by Jonathan Ive), has acknowledged that “Apple has achieved something I never did.” In addition, Jobs's leadership has goaded competitors and vendors to speed up the rate of their own innovation, notably forcing Bill Gates to develop Windows 3.1, and helping bring Postscript and laser printing to homes years before hardware and graphics software companies would have done so on their own. Jobs may have originated far less than Edison, but he helped make countless devices faster, sleeker, and cheaper.

That may not be enough. The technology law professor Jonathan Zittrain has contrasted the "generativity" of the earlier Apple with the more passive and proprietary spirit of the iPhone. A few critics on the Left go farther, seeing Apple’s elegant products as mere narcissistic consumerism. And even among conservatives, the economist Tyler Cowen has acknowledged in The Great Stagnation that Jobs (at least to judge from a study of the iPod’s impact) “has had only a very small net positive effect on job creation.” Given the state of the economy, if I had to choose between a new Jobs and a new Edison, I’d take the latter. But I’d never say Steve Jobs is no Edison. As an innovator and as a person, Jobs fully merits the comparison.

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity, and is a visiting scholar in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information.

FURTHER READING: Vaclav Smil writes "Why Jobs Is No Edison." John Steele Gordon discusses "The Henry Ford of Our Time." Nick Schulz contributes "Steve Jobs: America's Greatest Failure."

1.    Paul Israel, Edison, p. 376.

Image by Rob Green | Bergman Group

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