Why Jobs is No Edison

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.

16 Responses to “Why Jobs is No Edison”

  1. Joshua Ochs

    Many may think that Apple invented a lot of these technologies – and that is indeed incorrect, it didn’t. However, what Apple did was make them usable and significant – and that should not be underestimated. That takes not only vision (which no doubt the inventors had), but also the skill and finesse to see exactly how they could be best used and implemented.

    Things that existed before Steve came along and made them big include the mouse (Douglas Englebart), the GUI (Xerox Parc), tablet computing (Microsoft and a host of others), the iPod (Nomad, iRiver, etc), and even pedestrian things like USB (which was going nowhere prior to the iMac in 1998). Touchscreen phones also existed – but typically resistive and with a stylus, and no direct manipulation, which is central to the iPhone and any modern smartphone. Apple didn’t invent any of these, but rather they spent the time to determine exactly what mix of features and tradeoffs worked best, and most importantly made them all accessible, simple, and useful. That is no mean feat.

    Edison seems to have far more of a mythology than Jobs – at least you know where the fact and fiction leave off with Jobs, but Edison is elevated to godhood despite the fact that he seemed to be a truly nasty and unfair competitor. He invented the lightbulb and other sundry things, but what he seemed to do best was create a lab where *others* could invent things – and then take the credit. He also tended to be a ruthless bastard, crushing others with the then-equivalent of FUD and outright lies and charlatanism – and not just Tesla. In these respects, Edison would be much more similar to Gates than Jobs.

    Very little in scientific invention arises whole cloth; most things are built on previous developments and arise from all of the necessary pieces fitting into place at once, and just as many of those tend to be economic as scientific. This also tends to explain why we see scientific breakthroughs from multiple people at the same time. The genius is seeing when all of the pieces are available and then knowing how to fit them together into something that is greater than the collection of parts. That is Jobs’ genius.

    1. Phil Simon

      Great point, Joshua. I agree with you that innovation is certainly important, but having the vision and passion to take them to the masses is, too.

  2. Rick Gleason

    My apologies … for this third submission. Here’s the correct email address and Gravatar/profile photo attached. Thank you,! (Sure hope this works this time!)

    The jury’s still out and it’s far too early to jump to any conclusions. While many might say Jobs may not be all that Edison was, he is I believe for *our time* just as CNBC’s host Jim Cramer proclaimed.

    “This guy’s the greatest manufacturer of our time, he’s Henry Ford. He’s the greatest inventor of our time, he’s Thomas Alva Edison. What people don’t realize, he’s also the greatest retailer of our time, he’s Sam Walton.”

    Jobs’ reach goes further than just as an inventor of products that have become legendary, household items. He also knew how to put it all together in a way that Edison did not. To be fair Edison was not without his competition as there was also the Direct Current system invented by Nikola Tesla.

    As Joshua Ochs pointed out in his earlier comment, Edison took credit for a lot that he did not invent. Jobs, on the other hand, has been very much involved in every product Apple has produced under his hands-on leadership. His nit-picky and detail oriented reputation is legendary and goes beyond the nuances of the product itself to how it’s packaged, displayed and even bagged as it leaves his stores.

    Of course none of Jobs’ innovations would have been possible without electricity, but he certainly knew how to make the best of it. His vision and invention of the personal computer has had it’s far-reaching impact. No one before him saw the potential for those boxes in quite the same way, beyond the interest of a geek, than he did. Would there even have been an IBM-PC without Jobs? And after all they accomplished in the personal computer industry look where the former behemoth IBM is today, in comparison to that little company Steve created.

    Jobs’ iPod and iTunes innovations have turned the music industry upside down. His influence in that industry alone will be felt for generations to come.

    I don’t hold either one above the other on a pedestal. But I would be careful — very careful — at this early stage to sell Steve Jobs short. His influence on the world, while huge by any standard, is yet to be fully measured, while Edison’s impact has had 80 years to percolate.

    It seems Jobs has always been the target of skeptics, naysayers and constant criticism. Despite it all, he’s always been the one to have the last laugh.


  3. Susan Grigor

    Do not overlook the fact that Edison did not invent the incandescent light-bulb, but bought the patent from a couple of Canadians. Nor did Edison invent electricity; he was better at negative-campaigning than Nikola Tesla. Edison was, however, excellent at running his business and promoting it and its products. In that he was more to be compared to Walt Disney.

  4. Manish Chhabra

    I think Steve Jobs is worshipped more for his passion rather than the iPod/iPhone inventions. He was a charismatic leader, a leader of innovation and inspiration for many.

  5. Scott Berkun

    I feel bad for Smil, as with the passing of Steve Jobs yesterday, his article comes across as harsh.

    1. Smaranda

      I think his article comes across as sensible. For me, all the famous deaths and the media hypes that follow – who are eager to make gods out of plain mortals – always seem to be missing out on reality.

      1. Rick Gleason

        Anyone who, because of media’s coverage of an especially noteworthy person claims they are eager “to make gods” of them are the ones who are “missing out on reality.”

        (Noteworthy persons does NOT include all the famous, but certainly does with Jobs).

        Jobs was more than just famous, a plain mortal. It wasn’t all hype. Why does one have to find offense in the “reality” that there are those among us who deserve and get recognition for accomplishments above our own? I guess it helps them in their own simplemindedness to prove their relevance, while they stand in the shadow of giants.

  6. Elizabeth P

    It’s hard to make historic comparisons at this date, but I think Jobs did a tremendous amount to show the world how technology could be.

    On a technical note, Smil attributes the mouse to the Apple II computer and that is NOT accurate (http://oldcomputers.net/appleii.html). This model just had a keyboard, monitor and floppy (5 1/4) drives. The mouse came later with the Mac (and the Lisa). Once the Mac was released, the mouse did become an Apple II option.

    Mouse or no mouse, what made the Apple II computer popular was the same thing that made a lot of Apple products popular. Many non-computer scientists (including K-12 educators) could operate these devices, customize them and often program new apps on them without years of formal training.

    Apple may not have invented all (or even most) of its inner tech, but Jobs and company were able to put it all together in a way that worked for people. Microsoft and others have tried the same thing, but there’s still a missing interface element.

    Not everything Jobs or Apple did worked or made sense, but a surprising amount really panned out and it really changed a lot of computer apps for the better.

  7. Brock Peters

    Cool story Bro!

    Steve was awesome and there’s no doubt about it! You can’t take it away from him. You can’t touch him! Stop! Hammerzeit!!!

  8. Leszek Cyfer

    In our world innovation has stepped backward from solving important issues to making things nicer. Why? Because world is owned by megacorporations where big risks look bad on quarterly reports – as Neal Stephenson has put it here:


    Jobs got thrown away from Apple precisely from that reason – he adapted and came back with radical surface changes.

    In this environment he shined because surrounding him corporations are incapable of radical movements.

  9. Ricardo Santos

    You mean to tell me that Jobs didn’t have a sweatshop and took credit for their employees invention the way Edison did?

    Seek the history of Nicholas Tesla, so you get an idea of the kind of person Edison was.

  10. Luke

    You can’t compare the two. First, Edison’s contributions are being measured 100+ years after their creation, whereas Job’s inventions are being measured at most 30+ years after their creation (and in reality, most of Jobs’ contributions are so new that we are yet to even recognize their effect: iPad, iTunes Store, iPhone, etc.) . Second, the fact that the two men invented things does not mean their contributions can ever be compared. In the same way that it would be unfair to measure Edison’s contributions against Archimedes’, it’s unfair to measure Jobs against Edison. Third, there is little doubt that had Edison not existed, all of his inventions would have been invented at some point later in time. A world without electricity is unimaginable, but that is because it was also inevitable. As for Jobs, most of his work has not been in creation, but changes in business, culture and convention. Anyone who denies the impact of the iPad, or better yet, anyone who denies the impact of the iPhone is blind. The iPhone has been one of the biggest technological successes and innovations in modern history. It has fundamentally changed the face of computing. Before the iPhone, every phone looked like a blackberry. Five years later, every phone looks like an iPhone, and for good reason, they were 10 years ahead of the industry. Five years ago, there was no market for tablets. Now there is still no market for tablets, but there is a market for iPads and it just happens to be replacing the PC industry. But probably the biggest innovation has been Jobs iTunes revolution which is ushering in the digital market for music, movies, and books. Again, anyone that does not see or discounts the impact that Apple and Jobs have had on the digital media landscape are blind. Not that this revolution wouldn’t have come, but it would have come at a much later date, with much worse initial offerings.



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