The Age of Innovation
Good post from Carl Olson on Steve Jobs that casts a different light on the man than some of the hagiography that we’ve seen. What caught my attention and what I wanted to post about, however, was another article that he linked to which was written by Vaclav Smil. It hits upon a subject I’ve been meaning to blog about since Jobs’s death. The long and short of it: Steve Jobs was no Thomas Edison.
I have no desire to disparage or dismiss anything Jobs has done for his company, for its stockholders, or for millions of people who are incurably addicted to incessantly checking their tiny Apple phones or washing their brains with endless streams of music—I just want to explain why Jobs is no Edison.
Any student of the history of technical progress must be struck by the difference between the epochal, first-order innovations that take place only infrequently and at unpredictable times and the myriad of subsequent second-order inventions, improvements, and perfections that could not have taken place without such a breakthrough and that both accompany and follow (sometimes with great rapidity, often rather tardily) the commercial maturation of that fundamental enabling advance. The oldest example of such a technical saltation was when our hominin ancestors began using stones to fashion other stones into sharp tools (axes, knives, and arrows). And there has been no more fundamental, epoch-making modern innovation than the large-scale commercial generation, transmission, distribution, and conversion of electricity.
I thought that perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of electricity in modern civilization was to ask what we would not have without it:
The answer is just about everything in the modern world. We use electricity to power our lights, a universe of electronic devices (from cell phones to supercomputers), a panoply of converters ranging from hand-held hair dryers to the world’s fastest trains, and almost every life saver (modern synthesis and production of pharmaceuticals is unthinkable without electricity: vaccines need refrigeration, hearts are checked by electrocardiograms, and during operations are bypassed by electric pumps), and most of our food is produced, processed, distributed, and cooked with the help of electric machines and devices.
. . . Contrary to the standard narrative, his greatest contribution was not to invent the light bulb: a score of other inventors beat him to it, and he has to share the glory of its first commercially successful and relatively durable variety with Joseph Swan. Edison’s contribution was fundamentally far greater because he put in place, in a remarkably brief period between 1880 and 1882, the world’s first commercial system of electricity generation, transmission, and conversion. T.P. Hughes put it best when he concluded that “Edison was a holistic conceptualizer and determined solver of the problems associated with the growth of systems.” And the pace and breadth of his inventiveness is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that during those three critical years he was granted not only nearly 90 patents for incandescent filaments and lamps but also 60 patents for magneto or dynamo-electric machines and their regulation, 14 patents for the system of electric lighting, 12 patents for the distribution of electricity, and 10 patents for electric meters and motors.
There’s more at the link, and I encourage you to read it. Smil is not out to insult Jobs, but rather he wants to put Jobs’s accomplishments in some context.
This is rather timely for me because I have just finished reading Mark Steyn’s After America. One of the conceits of the book is a time traveler going forward from 1890 to 1950, and then traveling again from 1950 to 2010. The difference in lifestyle would be mind boggling for the first time jump, but the second one would not be as awe inspiring. Certainly there would be several impressive innovations, namely the personal computer, but most of the significant developments would be improvements over technologies that already existed rather than wholesale new devices. We get excited over the release of a phone that allows us to play music and read the internet. But imagine living in an age when you’re hand washing your clothes and have no means to cold store anything. Now you’ve got a refrigerator and a washing machine. The comparative lifestyle enhancement isn’t even close. Or what about air conditioners? If you lived in Houston, Texas before the air conditioner – well, you probably wouldn’t live there – the air conditioner would be a much bigger deal than a phone that lets you post facebook status updates.
Again, this is not to disparage Jobs or the wonderful toys we have at our disposal. But can we honestly say that the innovative leaps we’ve made in the past sixty years are as impressive as the ones we made in the preceding sixty years? Or are Steyn and Smil overlooking the importance of our new computer technologies, in particular medical technologies?