Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison

Last week, Bob Sutton asked me to add my two bits to the dog-pile surrounding the “Steve-Jobs-is-the-modern-Thomas-Edison” analogy. I initially balked. There were plenty of folks who’d already made this connection. Then I balked because Bob’s own brilliant post on Apple took the discussion in a much more productive direction.  Over the weekend, however, I bit. Not because of how the analogy fit, but because of how it didn’t.

 Most of the analogies are superficial—limited, no doubt, by audience and word counts. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta and BusinessWeek’s Rich Jaroslovsky both touch on the parallels between the two men in the nature of their technical contributions and ultimate impact: both men (and the companies they led) would change forever how those technologies shaped our everyday lives.  The Atlantic’s Eric Randall also notes the parallels between their brusque, short-tempered personalities.

Analogies are best not when pointing out the obvious but when showing us how two seemingly unrelated ideas are related in ways we didn’t, but should, notice. Bob poked me because I worked at Apple in the early 1990s, during the Sculley years following Jobs’ first reign (and because I have followed them religiously since) and because I have studied and written extensively about Edison.

Comparing the two men is easy. Of course, everyone from Bill Gates to Dean Kamen have been called a modern-day Edison as well, so it’s also not that useful. But in thinking about their similarities, I was struck by when they diverged, and what a difference that difference made.

Here are four reasons the analogy holds.

1. Neither man (and their companies) invented the technologies they would use to change the world.  As others have mentioned, each had their impact by seeing how emerging technologies might be recombined in novel ways that would enable their use by the broader markets. It should also be noted that neither man did the actual technical work.  Apple Computer owes as much to the technical creativity of Steve Wozniak as to the entrepreneurial spirit of Steve Jobs.  Similarly, Thomas Edison had Charles Batchelor, a long-time “co-inventor” who shared equally in the royalties of all Edison’s inventions. 

2. Both knew the value of public relations in shaping the adoption of innovations.  Apple has become noted almost as much for their mastery of the media, from the secrecy of their product launches to their CEO’s health.  Edison was at least their equal.  Historians have noted Edison’s efforts to shape his public image, for the public, investors, employees, and policy-makers. And he used his image as a creative genius to do so: from his much-publicized search for a better filament for his incandescent bulb (when the final solution would come litigiously close to those of his competitors) to the story of having returned to the lab through a back door, rubbed soot over his clothing, then emerged to greet a reporter as if caught “inventus interruptus.”

3. Both effectively harnessed and connected the efforts of small groups of extremely smart, extremely creative people.  Edison was most productive during the five years he oversaw the Menlo Park laboratory, when he had roughly 15 “muckers” helping to design and develop new ideas.  As Francis Jehl, his longtime assistant, would say, his contribution was to move among the others, giving direction and making connections between them. Whether the original team that developed the Apple computer, the pirate team that developed the Macintosh, or the teams that oversaw the iPod, and iPhone, Jobs’ role has been similarly described.  

4. Both initally brought forth revolutionary new technologies only to see them fall to competing platforms within the decade.  For Edison, Westinghouse introduced alternating current within 4 years of Edison’s grand opening of the Pearl Street Station. Fighting the competing standard cost him, at the time, both his public image as creative genius and his private hold over the company he created. The board ousted Edison and consolidated the related electricity companies under General Electric. After introducing the Apple II and Macintosh, Jobs too was ousted by the board following the rise of the IBM PC standard and a power struggle with John Sculley. 

Here the analogy breaks. It’s also here where the real story begins.

How both men dealt with their very public failures is a morality tale far richer in their differences than in the simplistic connections between them. 

Once ousted, both men jumped immediately back into the arena, intent on proving their detractors wrong. And both failed again. Edison returned to an earlier project, the phonograph, but would soon become embroiled in, and ultimately lose, another standards war. In 1985, Jobs founded NeXT computer, describing in a name his desire for redemption. Interestingly, both invested in new movie technologies (Edison pioneering moving pictures with a system of film, camera, and projector; Jobs investing in Pixar and the development of computer animation).

At the end of their second acts, our two heroes faced their greatest challenges and, here, their paths diverged.  

Edison kept roaming. Whether by temperament or temptation, he kept pursuing the next great invention, investing his and investors money in ultimately fruitless ventures such as magnetic iron-ore mining and concrete cast-in-place houses (both doomed by a toxic combination of huge capital costs and his well-known predilection for experimenting).

Jobs returned to Apple.  Clearly the wiser for these experiences, he discussed publicly the lessons he learned from his original ouster from Apple and from the failure of NeXT despite its brilliant technology.  Even brief conversations with former colleagues told me he had brought a new humility to the company’s innovation efforts. Gone was the effort to prove Apple’s technical genius, or inventive power. 

The need to reinvent the technological world—epitomized by Apple’s effort to invent the factory of the future in Fremont (which would never run profitably)—seemed completely gone. Of their new products, the new macs never pushed technological boundaries; the iPod used the same components as other MP3 players on the market; iTunes was built on SoundJam, a digital jukebox acquired by Apple in 2000. Instead, the company has focused on building products, and platforms, that are made better by the communities that surround them.  And it forced technical innovation, of which there is still plenty coming from Apple’s engineers, to serve and support that network.  

With all the fanfare that is Apple today, with its revolutionary products and lofty valuation, and all the stories of Jobs’ personality, I suppose few would see him as returning home wiser and humbler for his failures. But that’s the interesting story for me. How, unlike Edison, Jobs returned and prospered in a new role.  A part of me wants to believe he returned not to reprise the visionary genius, but rather to guide and mentor (in his own way) a small group of others who will continue the legacy.