Thomas Edison & Steve Jobs: Alter Egos

by | September 26, 2016 |

Last week I happened to read two books back to back. The first was Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Steve Jobs. The second was Jacked Up: The Inside Story of How Jack Welch Talked GE into Becoming the World’s Greatest Company (2007) by Bill Lane, Welch’s long-time speech writer.

Reading these two books in a row was a happy accident. They gave me a sense of the Alpha and Omega of American business in the twentieth century.

I was interested to read about GE since it is the only one of the original 12 companies on the Dow Jones Industrial Average to still be on the Dow. General Electric was formed in 1892 with the merger of Charles Coffin’s Thomson-Houston Electric Company and Thomas Edison’s Electric Light Company. The Dow Jones was established in 1896.

Steve Jobs

The latest company to be added to the Dow – which is now the Dow 30 and no longer composed only of industrials – is Apple, Inc., founded by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne in 1976. Apple joined the Dow in 2015.

The corporate headquarters of GE are in Fairfield, Connecticut. The corporate headquarters of Apple are – as everyone with an iPhone who uses the Weather app knows – in Cupertino, California.

East Coast. West Coast. The cultural differences couldn’t be clearer. In Jacked Up, golf plays a visible role, since a good golf game and membership in a country club are necessary for a traditional businessman. As for Steve Jobs, I doubt he ever held a golf club, and no mention of country clubs is made in Isaacson’s biography.

At GE, alcohol is a factor. Jobs didn’t drink, but psychedelics did play an early role.

If any religion was at issue at GE it was Jack Welch’s Irish Catholicism. Steve Jobs was more about Zen Buddhism.

The suits in Fairfield are rightly called suits – mention is made of ones costing a couple thousand dollars. Steve Jobs was renowned for his uniform of jeans and a turtleneck.

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

And so it goes.

But the really interesting thing is not about Steve Jobs in relationship to Jack Welch and the cultural differences between GE and Apple. It’s rather I realized that Steve Jobs is the modern-day Thomas Edison.

Steve Jobs

Edison created the modern world. Jobs further transformed it.

Edison held over 1000 patents. One was for the phonograph. Without it we wouldn’t now have iTunes.

Another patent was for the motion picture camera. Without it, Jobs wouldn’t have been involved in the founding of Pixar and the creation of the first fully computer-animated film, Toy Story (1995).

And without the light bulb, Jobs couldn’t have replaced it with the Mac in his idea bubble in his 1984 presentation of the Macintosh. (Cue the Chariots of Fire soundtrack.)

Well, okay, without the light bulb, we wouldn’t even have modern computing.

Both Edison and Jobs were devoted to bringing their inventions to the masses. Neither cared about money.

And here’s the strangest thing: Edison was known as the Wizard of Menlo Park (New Jersey). Guess where Steve Jobs lived? Menlo Park (California). Sheer coincidence. Almost eerie.

So these two books were both stimulating readings, made more interesting by their juxtaposition.

The question is: Where is American business going after Jobs?

Keep an eye on German-born engineer and educator Sebastian Thrun who worked at goggle until 2012. There he suggested Street View that photographs the world’s roadsides, developed Google’s self-driving cars, and founded the project responsible for glass, a wearable computer that looks like spectacles.


By World Economic Forum (Flickr: Future transportation: Sebastian Thrun) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (Creative Commons 2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Now a research professor at Stanford, Thrun founded Udacity, a startup dedicated to reinventing education for the 21st century.

Thomas Edison had a whole two months of formal schooling, was considered dull, and so was homeschooled by his mother. Steve Jobs is famous for being a Reed College dropout.

So, a resounding Yes to reinventing education! It would be wonderful if our greatest inventors didn’t develop because they had avoided the system, one way or the other. Is there a way to educate creativity? There must be a way, at least, to foster it.

Title Photo Credit: Matthew Yohe, released under Creative Commons Attribution license.

Categorised in:

This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.