The Wizard and the Mortal: Two Sides of Genius
IN August 1931, Thomas Alva Edison, age 84, became gravely ill with kidney problems. He recovered a little, then suffered a setback and was confined to bed at home, drifting in and out of consciousness
. Newspapers issued multiple bulletins each day, reporting on signs of improvement or decline. The end came in the early morning of Oct. 18, 1931, with his family at his bedside.
That day, The New York Times ran nearly two-dozen articles on Edison’s life and death. Newspapers worldwide were filled with eulogies and remembrances
for many days afterward. Words alone were not enough to express the nation’s grief. Heeding
President Herbert Hoover’s request, many Americans briefly turned off their electric lights at 10 o’clock Eastern time on the night of Edison’s funeral.
The broad outpouring that has followed the death of Steve Jobs reminds me of the display of grief following Edison’s death. In both cases, their passing evoked an extraordinary public response, tributes
that were greater and broader than those paid to many a head of state. Why is that?
Both men have fully occupied my attention at different times. I wrote a book about Mr. Jobs in 1993. I looked at his struggling endeavor to start another computer company, NeXT, after he left Apple amid a power struggle in 1985. His return to Apple in 1997 and the triumphs that would follow were not within sight. I took my snapshot
of him and the company when he was at the miserable nadir of his professional life.
Years later, I wrote a biography of Edison, a person whom Mr. Jobs admired. When you compare the two personalities and their careers, a few similarities emerge immediately. Both had less formal schooling than most of their respective peers. Both possessed the ability to visualize
projects on a grand scale. Both followed an inner voice when making decisions. And both had terrific tempers that could make their employees quake.
Both men worked in several product areas, but entertainment-related technology was a major portion of their product portfolios. This prompts
a question: Would the public’s relationship to Edison have been essentially the same without the phonograph
and without movies? Or with Mr. Jobs, if Apple had remained just Apple Computer?
After enjoying early success, each of them pursued a quixotic
project that would occupy them for roughly 10 years — Mr. Jobs’s disappointing but enlightening NeXT odyssey and Edison’s failed attempt to build an iron ore processing business in northwestern New Jersey.
THE later careers of the two were more different than similar. Mr. Jobs was able to realize his product visions — again and again. Edison’s career was characterized by a pattern of introducing what today we would call a beta version of a product and then losing interest in it. Competitors would then swoop in and fully commercialize the idea — and profit the most from it.
Mr. Jobs was the far shrewder
businessman, even if he never talked about wealth as a matter of personal interest. When Edison died, he left behind an estate valued at about $12 million, or about $180 million in today’s dollars. His friend Henry Ford had once joked that Edison was “the world’s greatest inventor and the world’s worst businessman.” Mr. Jobs was worth a commanding $6.5 billion.
Mr. Jobs was perhaps the most beloved billionaire the world has ever known. Richard Branson’s tribute captures the way people felt they could identify with Mr. Jobs’s life narrative
: “So many people drew courage from Steve and related to his life story: adoptees, college dropouts, struggling entrepreneurs, and people fighting debilitating
illness. We have all been there in some way and can see a bit of ourselves in his personal and professional successes and struggles.”
By contrast, Edison became a victim of his own manufactured life narrative and the world’s adulation. Earlier, when Edison introduced the spring-driven phonograph in 1878, a reporter coined a nickname for him: “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” He liked — too much — playing the Wizard. Educational reform. National defense spending. The fatal effects of clothing. The relationship of diet to national destiny. Much of it was ephemera
or idiocy, best forgotten.
Steve Jobs did not waste his time or ours with similar flotsam. A rare time that he publicly stepped out of the role of chief executive and shared personal thoughts was when he delivered the commencement address at Stanford in June 2005. It was a moving meditation
on his life and his — and our — mortality
. It was a talk for the ages.
The public tributes to Edison in 1931 and those to Mr. Jobs 80 years later were similar, but only superficially. With Edison, the public thought of the Wizard, an outsize persona
, through which it was impossible to see an actual person. But with Mr. Jobs, the tributes were to a fellow mortal, exactly our own height, just as vulnerable
as we all are to the random strike of a life-ending catastrophe