Is Steve Jobs One Of America's Great Innovators?

August 27, 2011

NPR Staff

Paul Sakuma
Steve Jobs, the now-former CEO of Apple, holds up an iPhone at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco in June 2010. Jobs announced on Wednesday that he would be resigning as CEO of Apple.

Steve Jobs stepped down this week as CEO of Apple after running the company for nearly 25 years.

The very first Macintosh computer, the iPod audio player and most recently the iPad are just a few of the products Jobs has created that have changed the way millions of people live their lives.

As one of the great American innovators in recent years, comparisons can be drawn between Jobs and other great innovators like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, both technological titans of American History.

The Henry Ford Museum just outside of Detroit is a shrine to all sorts of American innovation. The museum includes Edison's laboratory complex and the Wright Brothers' original bike shop.

Marc Greuther, chief curator at the Henry Ford Museum, told Weekend All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan that a common ground between Edison, Ford and Jobs is their understanding of latent needs.

"No one was banging on the door at Menlo Park requesting electrical light," Greuther says. "[Similar] to the iPhone, no one was wandering around clamoring for a personal computer in their pocket."

But little did we all know that's exactly what we wanted, Greuter says. Steve Jobs and his collaborators, much like innovators in the past, figured that out and said "you don't think you need this, but you're going to love it."

"That for me is a signature part of innovation," Greuther says.

Though Thomas Edison was most certainly an inventor, both he and Steve Jobs can be considered a mixture of both inventor and innovator to current technology. Edison was also acutely aware of how ensnared a person could get in imagining complex devices that couldn't be produced, Greuther says.

"If we can think of a typical inventor we could imagine someone who is eager to create a device but who then didn't necessarily have any plan for taking it further," he says. "Edison was adamant that anything he invested his time in actually had some possibility in the marketplace."

And bringing a product to market is one area where Steve Jobs reigned supreme.

At his product releases, wearing his trademark black turtleneck and jeans, Steve Jobs' stage performance and presentations became a hallmark of the Apple brand. Henry Ford, in the early days of the Model T, was equally intertwined with the company and its products, Greuther says, as well as Edison.

"There was a sense that these were all products that were all very close to the names associated with them," he says. "They weren't just goods with a brand stamped on them; so I think that follows through to Steve Jobs and Apple as well."

Great inventors and innovators of technology no doubt share some similar traits, tenacity among the most prominent, Greuther says. He also says a sense of vision, and the ability to articulate that vision, are traits that people liked Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Steve Jobs have in common.

"The beautiful thing is that you can analyze this to a high degree, you can start partitioning out all manner of behaviors and traits," he says. "I think that's part of the magic of how we encounter visionaries and leaders of this sort are that there are extra elements in there that is hard to pin down."

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