Steve Jobs: The Godfathers of His Genius

Young Thomas Edison (center, hands on knees) in his invention factory in Menlo Park, N.J., 1880. AISA-Everett Collection

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. He taught the world how to amplify signals, advancing the form of radio known as amplitude modulation (AM). He had some of Jobs’s theatrical flair. On the night of Nov. 5, 1935, in the clubhouse of the Institute of Radio Engineers on 39th Street, New York, he stood on the stage, a tall, phlegmatic man with a high-domed head, and presented what he called “a little demonstration.” He turned on a radio receiver. The listeners’ ears were attuned for the crackle of static. There was none. They heard, crystal clear, a pal of Armstrong’s announcing he was speaking from W2AG in Yonkers, which was just a name for his parlor and backyard antenna. The audience suspected a trick. It was merely a prelude to the drama conceived by Armstrong: Hear water poured into a glass! Listen to the crumpling of a piece of paper! Hear the striking of a match!

There followed a Mozart piano piece, then a tap on an Oriental gong with rapid dissonance in the upper registers. “The shimmering afterglow, a listener said, “hangs in the room with an uncanny lambent clarity.”

It was the first public demonstration of transmission on a broadband carrier wave by the modulation of very high frequencies—frequency modulation, or FM as we know it today. All the experts had said it was impossible. David Sarnoff, head of RCA, colluded with FCC officials to block and cripple FM for years because he sold AM radios, then simply stole Armstrong’s patented FM ideas for RCA. When Armstrong sued, Sarnoff drove him to despair and near bankruptcy by dragging out litigation for years. Armstrong’s wife, Marion, urged him to give up. They had such a furious row that she left him to stay with her sister. Armstrong was alone over the weekend in their grand apartment in the River House on 52nd Street. To go to court on Monday, he put on his overcoat, with scarf and gloves, climbed outside his 13th-floor bedroom, and jumped to his death.

Armstrong extended the potential of human communication to the ends of the earth and beyond the planet. Innovators build on the achievements of others; that is the commonplace of uncommon achievement. The shade of Armstrong’s genius prevails whenever we summon up a song from iTunes, but the tactile and visual appeal of the iPhone and iPod were beyond Armstrong’s vision. And the possibilities of digital transmission of any kind of message—music, words, images—were divined first not by Jobs but by a mathematician from the little town of Gaylord, Mich., one Claude Shannon (1916-2001), who liked to juggle beanbags while riding a unicycle of his invention.

We mourn Steve Jobs, but we can be sure his brave questing spirit will inspire others to push beyond the eureka moment to realize the ultimate expression of the magic inherent in the physics. When it happens we might call it the Jobs Effect.