An excellent and historically thorough comparison of Thomas Edison’s and Steve Job’s accomplishments:
Some 130 years after Edison’s remarkable creation of the electricity system, there still remains no doubt about the fundamental and truly epochal nature of his contributions: the world without electricity has become unimaginable. I bet that 130 years from now our successors will not be able to say the same about Apple’s sleek electronic devices assembled from somebody else’s components and providing services that are not fundamentally different from those offered by competitors. I have no doubt that the world without iPhone or iPad would be perfectly fine.
From Why Jobs Is No Edison — The American Magazine, by Vaclav Smil.
It’s a solid, well researched piece – something rare in innovation / tech articles.
The major critique I have with the core comparison is the same problem that surfaces when sports fans try to compare great players from the 1950s to players from today. There are too many variables to make a fair analysis.
In defense of Jobs, electricity was already invented when he was born. He had no choice but to make use of it and a thousand other inventions that predated his birth. And Thomas Edison did precisely the same thing, as he did not invent paper, pens, desks, laboratories, chemistry, etc. Alternatively, If Edison could have used cheap 3rd party sources from China for components in his products he probably would have, given the business sense it would have made. The fact workers in his lab invented everything is more a factor of necessity than ability.
Despite which person you place on a higher pedastal, they were both passionate pragmatists who cared about shipping good products, rather than some abstract ideal for what innovation is or is not. This distinction is comically lost on many executives who worship the mythology of these great businessmen, but not their focus on product design, or hard work, or true passion for making good things.
I’ve critiqued worshipers of Jobs’ for overlooking how little Apple has invented (in the most rigorous definition of the word), a point Smil makes in the article. Mice, PCs, phones and digital music players were around long before Apple got to them. As brilliantly designed as their products are, that’s not the same as invention, a fact born out by how many licenses and patents Apple pays for from other companies.
Anyway, read the article. Despite the pitfall laden era-crossing comparison, it’s a solid and informative read.