Why Steve Jobs was no Edison

Though his accomplishments were remarkable, they were not epochal.

Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs with an Apple II computer.(Photo: Ralph Morse/Time Life Pictures/Getty)

Superlatives about Steve Jobs’s tenure as the head of Apple reached new heights once he announced his retirement in August. Those smitten by the sleek products that Jobs introduced in his much-anticipated stage presentations have rarely seen them as anything but revolutionary, and claimed that they repeatedly changed not only the expectations of what modern electronics can deliver, but our lives.

This is exemplified by Ken Auletta’s New Yorker homage:

“The 20th century’s Thomas Edison has stepped from the stage…the scope of the technologies that sprang from or were transformed by Jobs’s Apple laboratories—the Mac, the mouse, the laptop, Pixar, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad—is awesome, as was that from Edison’s Menlo Park.”

I have no desire to disparage or dismiss anything Jobs did for his company, for its stockholders, or for millions of people who are incurably addicted to their tiny Apple phones—I just want to explain why Jobs was no Edison.

There is a difference between the epochal, first-order innovations that take place only infrequently and at unpredictable times, and the myriad of subsequent second-order inventions, improvements, and perfections that could not have taken place without such a breakthrough, and that both accompany and follow the commercial maturation of those fundamental advances. And there has been no more fundamental, epoch-making modern innovation than the large-scale commercial generation, transmission, distribution and conversion of electricity.

This fundamental innovation was created during a remarkably short period of time—most of it between the late 1870s and the beginning of the 20th century—by a surprisingly small number of inventors, engineers and scientists. But, justly, one name stands above them all, that of Thomas Alva Edison.

Contrary to the standard narrative, his greatest contribution was not to invent the light bulb: a score of other inventors beat him to it. Edison’s contribution was fundamentally far greater because he put in place, in a remarkably brief period between 1880 and 1882, the world’s first commercial system of electricity generation, transmission and conversion. And the pace and breadth of his inventiveness is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that during those three critical years he was granted not only nearly 90 patents for incandescent filaments and lamps but also 60 patents for magneto or dynamo-electric machines and their regulation, 14 patents for the system of electric lighting, 12 patents for the distribution of electricity, and 10 patents for electric meters and motors.

Afterward, Edison made many fundamental contributions to rapidly evolving sectors, using electricity in the reproduction of sounds and images (his phonograph, cameras and projectors), as well as in such diverse technical categories as improved batteries, processing of iron ore, and construction of pre-cast concrete houses. He amassed nearly 1,100 U.S. patents and more than a thousand foreign ones.

But the electric system remains Edison’s grandest achievement: an affordable and reliable supply of electricity has opened doors to great second-order innovations ranging from medical diagnostic devices to refrigerators, from massive electrochemical industries to tiny computers governed by microchips.

Until 2010, none of the microprocessors in Apple’s i-products were designed or made by Apple. For example, Samsung has been supplying iPhone’s main processor; Wolfson chips have been handling the phone’s audio; and Infineon chips have done power management. The same was true of the earliest Apple products: Apple II would have been impossible without innovations by Xerox’s PARC—above all its Star computer—and Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute patented the first mouse in 1967.

Apple’s products are actually third-order innovations that use a variety of fundamental second-order innovations in the now vast realm of electronic components to assemble and to program devices whose greatest appeal has been due to their (choose your own adjective, or embrace all of them) sleek, unorthodox, elegant, streamlined, clean, functional interface design.

Not that those are unimportant attributes when trying to sell on a mass scale—Edsel, perhaps the paragon of American product failure, had the same type of engine as did a highly successful Mustang!—but looks and product appeal are far too little to qualify for an Edisonian mantle.

And there is also no doubt that Apple’s devices have benefited from group infatuation, a phenomenon that has often favored a product or a class of designs based on an allegiance that the devotees themselves have difficulty defining in coherent terms, as by people willing to pay high premiums for German engineering even after decades of Consumer Reports evaluations have failed to demonstrate any stunning superiority of German cars over Hondas and Toyotas.

As for the “awesome technologies” that sprang from Jobs’s Apple laboratories, would not an impartial observer describe the iPad as just a small laptop computer without a keyboard and a cover rather than an innovation on par with electricity, vaccination or hybrid crops?

Auletta concluded that Jobs, like Edison, was “an inventor and a man who has changed our lives.” However, instant history has its perils. Some 130 years after Edison’s remarkable creation of the electricity system, there remains no doubt about its truly epochal nature: 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 electronic devices. I have no doubt that the world without iPhone or iPad would be perfectly fine.

Vaclav Smil is a distinguished professor in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba.

This is an abridged version of an essay written before Jobs’s death, first appearing in the Sept. 30 edition of The American, a publication of the American Enterprise Institute.