Steve Jobs became an icon as one of the greatest innovators of the modern age. He follows in a great American tradition of innovation that have built the fundamental building blocks of the U.S. economy. History will be kind to Jobs. Students will read about his accomplishments in their textbooks for decades and perhaps centuries to come. In classic Jobs style, those textbooks will probably be built into iPads.
Where does Jobs stand in the pantheon of great American innovators? Certainly, he was one of the most inspiring and creative Americans of the modern era. Let's take a look at the history innovation in the United States and assess how these great people influenced how we live our lives today.
Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790)The man that graces the hundred dollar bill was the first and foremost of great American innovators. He was considered a sage by the rest of the U.S. founding fathers and helped define not only what it meant to be an American but also what it meant to be an American inventor. He discovered the modern definition of electricity, created lightning rod, did numerous studies with ocean currents and conductive electricity. From a social perspective, he was an early proponent of "paying it forward" and found the American Philosophical Society.
"As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously."
Eli Whitney (1765 - 1825)One of the key members of the American Industural Revolution, Whitney inadvertently created the invention that propagated slavery in the American South for another 40 years, leading to bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, the Civil War. Whitney is known for creating the cotton gin, a tool used to easily pick seeds out of cotton that made the harvesting of cotton a much less labor intensive process, hence increasing the amount of cotton that could be planted and produced. A Massachusetts man, Whitney also worked on a milling machine for farmers though it is disputed whether or not he can take credit for the invention.
"One of my primary objects is to form the tools so the tools themselves shall fashion the work and give to every part its just proportion."
Alexander Graham Bell (1847 - 1922)Bell has become synonymous with the telephone. He was originally born in Scotland and it may be a reach to call him an "American" inventor, but the original working telephone in 1876 came from his labs in Boston where he was a professor at Boston University. He also married a woman from Boston though spent much of his time in Canada. Bell was a precursor to the current ecosystem of technological innovation as his telephone faced 587 court challenges to its patents.
"When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us."
Thomas Edison (1847 - 1931)Edison was the true precursor to modern American innovation. If there was truly a Steve Jobs before there as Steve Jobs, it was Edison. Edison hailed from New Jersey and started his experiments out of his house in Newark, much the same way that Jobs would later work with Steve Wozniak in a garage in Cupertino. Edison was instrumental in creating the light bulb and was the first film magnate of the 20th century, creating his movies in "Black Maria" in New York City. Edison grew from humble inventor to a titan of industry, a man to be respected, a man to be feared (his goons were notorious for smashing the studios and equipment of rival film makers, which eventually pushed them out West to a place called Hollywood). Edison holds 1,093 patents, the most of any single person in the U.S. Patents Office.
"The first requisite for success is to develop the ability to focus and apply your mental and physical energies to the problem at hand - without growing weary. Because such thinking is often difficult, there seems to be no limit to which some people will go to avoid the effort and labor that is associated with it."
Nikola Tesla (1856 - 1943)Tesla is the modern inspiration for a large group of contemporary innovators. Part of that is because he was considered to be one of the most brilliant men of his age but died poor and alone at a hotel in New York City. Tesla was introduced to Edison after he came to the U.S. Tesla's work on electricity was considered superior to Edison's but when it came to matching Edison as a businessman, Tesla fell far short. The two became adversaries and Edison's arrogance and consumer determination eventually beat out Tesla's innovation. Tesla was instrumental in the creation of the X-Ray and radio transmitter in addition to his various work around electricity.
"The practical success of an idea, irrespective of its inherent merit, is dependent on the attitude of the contemporaries. If timely it is quickly adopted; if not, it is apt to fare like a sprout lured out of the ground by warm sunshine, only to be injured and retarded in its growth by the succeeding frost."
Fred Smith (1944 -- )Smith may not seem like the type of guy to make this list, but what he created with Federal Express was certainly a great innovation in American history. Smith created a package delivery network that incorporated trains, planes and automobiles that redefined modern transportation logistics. FedEx (as it was renamed in the early 1990s) is a shining example of the determination of American entrepreneurship and overcoming early setbacks to achieve unprecedented goals.
"The information about the package is just as important as the package itself."
Bill Gates (1955 -- )Gates has come to define modern software. He taught himself programming and built Microsoft Windows to be the preeminent computing system in the world. He came from a middle class background to log thousands of hours of code before dropping out of school to start Microsoft. Gates inspected every line of code the company produced for the first five years of its existence. Gates has become one of the richest men in the world and was the progenitor of some of the most basic (no pun intended) programming languages in use today.
"Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one."
Steve Jobs (1955 - 2011)What more is there to say about Jobs, the day after his passing? He helped shape personal computing as we know it and was the biggest icon in all of technology. His name is on several hundred patents, even if he was never actually much of a coder or a builder himself. His name belongs among the greatest innovators in American history.
"The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network. We're just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people--as remarkable as the telephone." (PlayBoy interview, 1985)
Larry Page & Sergey Brin (1973 -- )The creators of Google need no introduction. The two have shaped how the Web has evolved since 1998 and provide motivation and inspiration for thousands of young entrepreneurs. Google continues to push the bounds of technology, be it through search or software.
"The ultimate search engine would basically understand everything in the world, and it would always give you the right thing. And we're a long, long ways from that." ~Page
Mark Zuckerberg (1984 -- )Talented, young and brash, Zuckerberg may have work to do to fully match the accomplishments of those listed above. Yet, in seven years, Zuckerberg has taken the basic idea of sharing to an entirely new level. Facebook has 800 million users and the Open Social Graph part of the backbone of the Web. Does Zuckerberg have the kind of innovation in him that will help Facebook redefine technology for decades? Time will tell.
"When you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place. So, what we view our role as, is giving people that power."
This list, like any list of great people, is incomplete. Who was your favorite American innovator? Other great innovators, like Linus Torvalds (Linux) were cut from this list because they were not American. In the history of the world, who was the most influential innovator? Let us know in the comments.