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Does Jobs Have Place In History Beside Edison, Ford?

Originally published on August 27, 2011 6:37 pm

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

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

Comparisons can be drawn between Jobs and other great American innovators like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, both technological titans in U.S. 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 weekends on 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."

Little did we know that's exactly what we wanted, Greuter says. 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 Edison was most certainly an inventor, both he and 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."

Bringing a product to market is one area where Jobs reigned supreme.

At his product releases, wearing his trademark black turtleneck and jeans, Jobs' stage performance and presentations became a hallmark of the Apple brand. In the early days of the Model T, Ford was equally intertwined with the company and its products, Greuther says, as was 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. Edison, Ford and Jobs also all had a sense of vision and the ability to articulate that vision.

"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. ... There are extra elements in there that [are] hard to pin down."

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. We'll get back to the hurricane in a few minutes. First, though, to the news that rocked the technology world this week: Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple after running the company for nearly 25 years. The very first Macintosh, the latest iPad - he's changed the way millions of people live their lives.

All of this got us wondering how Steve Jobs stacks up against the other technological titans of American history. So we got in touch with Marc Greuther. He's the chief curator at the museum dedicated to Henry Ford, outside Detroit. The museum's actually a shrine to all sorts of American innovation. It includes Thomas Edison's laboratory complex and the Wright Brothers' original bike shop. Marc Greuther joins us, fittingly, by iPhone, a product that took off the minute Steve Jobs introduced it.

MARC GREUTHER: The effect of the iPhone, even in its - just at the - the few years it's been available, has been immense. I mean, it's very different, for instance, than - you know, if you think back to Thomas Edison and think to the demonstration of the electrical system that he put on in late 1879, it was actually decades before, you know, middle-class homes actually had wiring in them as built, you know? So that's a great example of a quite well-refined innovation that it took a long time to really gain any adhesion.

SULLIVAN: So, you know, Edison was clearly an inventor, but that's - in some ways, is that a little bit different than what Ford and Steve Jobs did as more innovators?

GREUTHER: That's a good - there's definitely a difference now. I mean, if we can think of a typical inventor, we could imagine someone eager to create a device but who then didn't necessarily have any plan for taking it any further. Edison was adamant that anything he invested his time in actually had some possibility in the marketplace. And he was acutely aware of how ensnared you could become in unproducible, over-complex devices. So he's both. With Steve Jobs, again, it's a mixture. What really, I think, astounds is the understanding of latent needs.

That is a common ground with people like Edison and Ford - more so with Edison. No one was banging on the door at Menlo Park requesting electric light. The iPhone - who was wandering around clamoring for a personal computer in their pocket? But little did we know, that's what we wanted. And Steve Jobs and his collaborators, they had figured that out. You know what, you don't need this. You don't think you need this, but you're going to love it. That is, for me, a signature part of innovation.

SULLIVAN: Everybody can picture Jobs up there holding court at those giant press conferences, where he's unveiling - you know, in his black turtleneck, unveiling his new...

GREUTHER: Right.

SULLIVAN: ...product, saying: And one more thing. And he introduces some...

GREUTHER: Exactly. The wardrobe and the manner and the sense of a performance - a persona, if you will. But done properly, everyone goes along with that. It's part of the deal.

SULLIVAN: It almost seems like Jobs himself has become part of the Apple brand. Were Ford and Edison like that, too?

GREUTHER: Oh, in the sort of first decade or so of Model T production, the Model T as a vehicle, Henry Ford as the leader of that company, those were eagerly reported. They were quite well-understood and they were very much intertwined, very much so. And you see with Edison, certainly in the early 20th century, things like phonographs, even if you look at the trademark, it's his stylized signature. There was a sense that these were all products that were very, very close to the names associated with them. They weren't just goods with a brand stamped on them. So I think that follows through to Steve Jobs and Apple as well.

SULLIVAN: Is there some trait that makes all of these people - Ford, Edison and even Steve Jobs - the great innovators that they are or have been?

GREUTHER: I think it's a combination of things. Tenacity is a huge part of it; a sense of vision, a way of articulating that. The beautiful thing is, you know, you can analyze this to a high degree. You can start partitioning out all manner of behaviors and traits, and it doesn't tell you how to do that. There's - I think that's part of the magic of how we encounter visionaries and leaders of this sort - is that there's this extra element in there that's very hard to pin down.

SULLIVAN: Marc Greuther is chief curator at the Henry Ford. Marc, thanks so much for joining us.

GREUTHER: You're more than welcome. It's been a great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.