The Godfathers of His Genius

By Evans, Harold | Newsweek, October 10, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Godfathers of His Genius


Evans, Harold, Newsweek


The inspired innovators before him who made Steve Jobs's triumphs possible.

In the pantheon of American innovators, nobody comes close to the defining legacy of Steve Jobs. It is commonly misrepresented. He was not an Edison. He was not equipped to make a breakthrough in pure technology in the sense of circuits and frequencies. That is not what makes Apple unique. His gift to humanity was an imaginative apogee of form and function. He had the vision of a seer. He took the technology as it was and imposed on it his sublime taste, which millions joyously embraced as their own in personal computers, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Fully to appreciate the crowning nature of his "insanely great" creations, one has to look back at the jagged routes to his summits of beautiful utility.

The iPhone owes little to the man routinely described as the father of the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell went off on a prolonged honeymoon once he'd proved that sound waves could be converted into undulating electric current. He did nothing more after the marvelous moment on the evening of March, 10, 1876, when his young assistant, Thomas Watson, heard Bell's voice come down the wire. "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!" but as Watson later remarked, the Bell phone was calculated more to develop the voice and lung than to enable conversation. The eureka moment of folklore overshadows what must follow if the brain wave is to reach the bustle of the marketplace. It was left to Thomas Edison and his associate Charles Batchelor to make the Bell phone audible by inventing a carbon-button transmitter for the rival Western Union. But then the world had to wait for someone to tackle the myriad obstacles to a national long-distance system. An Ohioan who started as a railway mail clerk did that. Theodore Vail merged Western Union and Bell, pooled patents, and founded the American Telegraph and Telegraph Co., the company Jobs chose for his launch partner in 2007. And Apple's products depend on the microchip, whose origins lie in the transistor invented in 1947 at the Bell labs founded by Vail.

An American innovator whom Jobs admired, and in many ways resembled, was Edwin Land (1909-91), the willful optimist and brilliant scientist, best known for his instant self-developing Polaroid camera, though he had 533 patents. He preceded Jobs in giving to the public what they didn't know they wanted. Both men insisted on the impossible. Both were secretive. Both drove their teams ferociously; Land's associates were forbidden ever to utter the word "problem." Land inspired, but it was another (and sorely neglected) innovator whose inventions made Jobs's dreams practicable.

Edwin Howard Armstrong (1890-1954), was an enabler. As a boy radio ham recovering in Yonkers from St. Vitus's dance (chorea), he built a wooden tower to fix an antenna 125 feet above the ground so he could pick up signals on his headphones. All his life he was intoxicated by height and speed. He rode a red Indian motorcycle to his studies at Columbia University. Then, step by inspired step, he revolutionized communication. …

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