Monday 24 October 2011

Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison and the Spirit of Invention

Thomas Edison, relaxing with his iPod
by Nick Cleaver

I’d like to talk a little about Steve Jobs. Not in the sense of an ode to a life tragically cut short – I never met the man and, while I do own a phone which could be considered to a greater or lesser extent a product of his genius or vision, without wishing to sound callous I would not presume that this places me in sufficiently close relation to warrant paroxysms of grief. Suffice it to say that 56 years is no great age in the 21st Century developed world and I am sure that his family, friends and colleagues miss him greatly. What I would like to talk about is Steve Jobs’ embodiment of ideas which resonate strongly with the United States of America a century before his time.

I would summarise these ideas, rather grandiloquently, as the Spirit of Invention. I am not myself a massive devotee of the Apple Corporation. In my life I have owned one iPhone and one iPod, but never a Mac so I would not consider myself particularly well placed to argue the merits of Apple’s products over those of any other company except to say that both the iPhone and iPod have given me good service (at least until I accidentally put the iPod through a washing machine cycle – an experience which it did not survive). That said, there are two aspects of Apple’s work under Steve Jobs’ leadership which I feel should be acknowledged. The first is the role played by the first Macintosh computers of the mid-1980s in pioneering the use of an interface utilising a mouse, a genuinely revolutionary step in the development of personal computers and one which rivals anything done by Microsoft (who, no matter what you might think of them, their products, or their business practices, have played the largest role in creating the modern experience of using a computer). Apple did not invent the concept of the mouse themselves, but they acquired it – legally – and helped make it an entirely normal part of our everyday lives. The second aspect which I feel is worthy of general approbation is the creation and marketing of the iPad. I have only had a very limited opportunity to play with an iPad – people I know who own one seem to be very much enamoured with them – but what little I have seen suggests it is a very neat bit of technology indeed. What I really admire, though, is the fact that it was originally produced without a set purpose, or even a target market (beyond techy people and Apple disciples), in mind. The hope and expectation was that, Apple having put something new into the marketplace, people would find their own uses for it. Given impressive sales, the recent release of an iPad2, and the development of an entire new market of tablet computers I think it’s fair to say that this hope has been fulfilled.

Edison, with lightbulb
All of which brings me on to Thomas Edison. Almost exactly a century before Steve Jobs entered into the nascent industry of personal computing, Edison founded the world’s first industrial research laboratory the sole purpose of which was to come up with inventions which may or may not be of use to people. Much like Steve Jobs, Edison’s role within that laboratory gradually changed from a hands-on one to that of manager, strategist, and chief marketer, but he himself held the rights to over 1,000 patents in the United States (not all of which were necessarily humdingers, my personal favourite being houses and home furnishings made out of concrete, poured into prefabricated moulds, which promised to be a never-ending source of impotent frustration for anyone who liked to regularly rearrange their furniture and, unsurprisingly, never really caught on).  Also like Jobs, Edison’s greatest contribution came from the development and marketing of a device which had been originally conceived by others – the incandescent light bulb. While many inventors and scientists around the world had experimented with the concept throughout the 19th Century, it was Edison who found a method to make it sufficiently reliable and economical for the mass market and so could fairly to be said to have changed the world.

While the computing revolution of the late 20th Century did not profoundly alter the lives of ordinary people to the same extent as electric lighting or some of the other ideas and products created by Edison’s laboratory and others like it a hundred years earlier, it has still had a massive impact on the way in which we live. Steve Jobs played a small, but important, part in that process. More impressive to me, however, is the role which – it is to be hoped – he played in reinvigorating (or at least returning to the limelight) the idea of inventing products without a set purpose in mind. In a world in which it is easy to believe that corporations are satisfied with simply making their next product a smaller version of their last one (perhaps with the addition of a camera or mp3 player) and where governments will withdraw research funding for anything which cannot show an immediate and quantifiable benefit to its work (see the closing of the Tevatron particle accelerator in Batavia, Illinois, last month) this is an all too rare concept.

1 comment:

Bev said...

Hi Nick - well I have a couple of Mac's an ipod, iphone and ipad. So you can see I am completely hooked! For someone like me (loves technology but is not 'very good' with it - eg I usually only have to touch a computer and it breaks...oh and I was banned from even looking at the photocopier at the sixth form college I once worked at) but I where was I...oh yes so for me having the luxury of being able to 'sink' all my technologies so I have the same information on all of them is simply wonderful. However, the point I wanted to say is that technology is a wonderful thing - my Grandparents who were born in 1899 and 1901 and, who sadly died, in the 80s saw such an advancement in technology in their lives. If they were to come back now they would not notice much difference except for the WWW. My Grandparents daughter, my Aunt, married a GI and I can remember waiting for the weekly airmail letter from her. This was the only communication they had for over 30yrs. Now my own daughter lives in California and I 'talk' each night to her on messenger, she 'face times' me using Apple technology at weekends and some lunch times...and all for free. Times change - and thanks to Steve Jobs the miracle of instant communication is making my daughters absence more bearable.