Thoughts on genius, talent and history written the day after Apple founder Steve Jobs passed away.
It is interesting and inspiring seeing the wave of posts, rememberances and editorials this morning about Steve Jobs. I am reading them on a device that was spawned from his imagination, connected to the world by a network that he had envisioned, and loaded with hundreds of tools that I use so routinely that I can't imagine how I would manage without them.
The most frequent comparison being made of course is with an American genius of a hundred years ago, Thomas Edison. I can't even condense what Edison's legacy is into a sentence or paragraph - this is from Wikipedia:
Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) was an American inventor, scientist, and businessman who developed many devices that greatly influenced life around the world, including the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb. In addition, he created the world’s first industrial research laboratory. Dubbed "The Wizard of Menlo Park" (now Edison, New Jersey) by a newspaper reporter, he was one of the first inventors to apply the principles of mass production and large teamwork to the process of invention, and therefore is often credited with the creation of the first industrial research laboratory.
Edison is the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. He is credited with numerous inventions that contributed to mass communication and, in particular, telecommunications. These included a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures. His advanced work in these fields was an outgrowth of his early career as a telegraph operator. Edison originated the concept and implementation of electric-power generation and distribution to homes, businesses, and factories – a crucial development in the modern industrialized world. His first power station was on Manhattan Island, New York.
While I have been working this morning, I've been listening to the 3-CD set Legacy by Doc Watson and David Holt - on a device designed by Jobs and powered by Edison. The first 2 CDs are primarily interview segments with the living legend of the acoustic guitar, who as of this writing is 88 years old and still performing occasionally (he's headed this way to play the Birchmere later this month!). It is spellbinding to listen to Doc talking about his childhood, and hearing records and the old Victrola, and lots of other things that have long passed from popular use into relic-dom.
Doc is one of that rare breed of revered elders in the music world. A National Heritage Fellow, blind since infancy, beloved by music fans around the world for his dazzling playing and kindly, folksy conversations. Doc is an icon in my time for his vast repertoire of songs that came to these shores hundreds of years ago that were already likely hundreds of years old.
In keeping these very old tunes alive and fresh, Doc inspires generations of young musicians to learn and breathe new life into those same tunes and others. It's called the "folk process" for good reason, and the tradition is alive and well thanks to great musicians like Doc and others.
It has me thinking. The iPod/iPhone generation will grow up and get old. And when they do, they will talk about things that Steve Jobs dreamed up, in much the same way that Doc reminisces about the Victrola. While we rarely discuss Edison directly these days, he influences every facet of our lives - even (and perhaps most especially) when the power goes out.
What these three men have in common is that they were fueled by creativity and driven to excel. To do what others hadn't. To dream, and to find some way to bring those dreams into the visceral and corporeal world. To each of them there was not a job or a career in mind, only to excel at bringing their imagination to life. And for each of them, their successes at doing just that are among the most towering legacies left by any American. To me, it is awe-inspiring.
A hundred years from now, I wonder what people will say about Steve Jobs legacy. I am sure it will grow by leaps and bounds depending on what new technology evolves on the personal computer/smartphone/tablet foundation that he helped build. And I am sure that then as now, the guitar of Doc Watson will still be studied by musicians young and old seeking to learn and grow. I am a lucky man that I have walked the earth at the same time as both of them.