Was Jobs an Edison for our time?

 Some compare the transformative impact of inventor Thomas Edison, seen here with his phonograph, to that of Steve Jobs.

Story highlights

  • Paul Israel says some have compared Steve Jobs impact to that of Thomas Edison
  • He says there are differences: Edison not in tune with consumer markets but Jobs was
  • He says both were good at harnessing scientific knowledge into transformative technologies
  • Israel: Both had their product missteps but were masters at innovation and media promotion

The death of Steve Jobs has renewed comparisons to another great innovator who died 80 years ago this month -- Thomas Edison. But there are important differences between the two men.

In the 80 years between their deaths, consumers came to dominate the economy, a transformation that was only beginning during the later years of Edison's life. Steve Jobs was a master at understanding how to create transformative consumer technologies.

Although Edison was a key innovator in two consumer technologies -- sound recording and motion pictures -- he struggled to understand the consumer markets he helped to create. His most important technological innovation was the electrical system, which made possible the personal computers, music players and smartphones innovated by Jobs. Edison was also more involved in the day-to-day work of invention than Jobs, and his other great innovation was the industrial research and development laboratory

While the differences between Edison and Jobs are important, so, are their similarities. These offer lessons for other innovators. Jobs and Edison succeeded because they were good at envisioning how long-term developments in scientific and technical knowledge could be transformed into new technologies.

At the start of his electric light research Edison described his vision for an entire electric light and power system and then used the knowledge of decades of research on incandescent lamps and generators to create the first viable incandescent lamp and the entire electric light and power system that made it commercially viable.

Paul Israel

Similarly, before developing the Macintosh computer, Jobs envisioned how two decades of work on graphical user interfaces and the computer mouse could transform the way people used computers, and also how the development of touchscreens and miniaturization could be transformed into the smartphone.

In developing new technologies, both men focused on the long-term. They understood that innovation does not happen overnight and were willing to commit considerable resources to a process that might result in failure. In fact, both had notable commercial failures. With Jobs it was the NeXT computer, and with Edison it was a method for processing low-grade iron ore. Neither was a technical failure, however, and they became successful elements in subsequent innovations.

The software that drove the NeXT computer became an important part of the Macintosh operating system, while Edison's rock-crushing technology was widely licensed. Edison himself used this technology to enter the Portland cement industry, where he became a major producer by innovating a long rotary kiln that became the industry standard.

Apple's passionate pitchman
Apple's passionate pitchman


    Apple's passionate pitchman


Apple's passionate pitchman 00:59
Steve Jobs leaves lasting legacy
Steve Jobs leaves lasting legacy


    Steve Jobs leaves lasting legacy


Steve Jobs leaves lasting legacy 04:04
Steve Jobs was 'out of place and time'
Steve Jobs was 'out of place and time'


    Steve Jobs was 'out of place and time'


Steve Jobs was 'out of place and time' 03:21

As part of their long-term vision of innovation, both Jobs and Edison understood that a device that worked well experimentally might not be suited to everyday use. They therefore spent time and resources to ensure their technology was commercially viable before putting it on the market. Jobs publicly demonstrated the first IPhone six months before it was ready for the market.

After his first public demonstration of a lamp and lighting system, Edison spent a year on further development before he introduced them commercially. And, after commercial introduction, both innovators continued to fund research to improve their products and keep them at the forefront of the market. Nonetheless, both Edison and Jobs were better at introducing transformative technologies than dominating the markets they created.

Finally, Edison and Jobs were masters at using the media to promote both their products and themselves in ways that captured the public imagination. Such promotion, however, was based on a solid foundation of innovation that helped to transform people's lives. It is for this reason that President Herbert Hoover asked Americans to dim their lights for a minute to honor Edison's memory.

It's also the reason that on news of Jobs' death, fans flocked to Apple stores and held vigils -- lit by iPhones.

      Life of Steve Jobs

    • cnni velshi jobs glamour computers_00012505

      Steve Jobs and you

      We want to hear your stories. Did you ever meet Jobs? How did he change your life? Share your photos, videos and memories with CNN iReport.
    • Apple co-founder Steve Jobs introduces the new Power Mac G4 computer in San Francisco in 1999.

      Timeline: Steve Jobs' career

      Ever since Steve Jobs worked on the first Apple computer, he has strived to make computer products "insanely great."
    • Chief Executive Officer of Apple, Steve Jobs, shows off the ipod touch.

      The spiritual side of Steve Jobs

      It's well known that the secret to Apple's meteoric success is the creativity of Steve Jobs. But what drove the company's celebrity founder?
    • Apple CEO Steve Jobs waves as he delivers the keynote address.

      Jobs' top 5 showman moments

      From the launch of the iPhone to his meeting with Bill Gates, we look at five of Steve Jobs' best moments as Apple's consummate showman.
    • US President Barack Obama walks from the Oval Office carrying an iPad as he departs the White House for a game of golf in Washington on May 21, 2011. AFP PHOTO / JOSHUA ROBERTS

      Obama hails 'brave' Jobs

      President Barack Obama hailed Steve Jobs as one of America's greatest innovators, a man "brave enough to think differently."
    • SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 06: Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivers the keynote address at the 2011 Apple World Wide Developers Conference at the Moscone Center on June 6, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Apple CEO Steve Jobs returned from sick leave to introduce Apple's new iCloud storage system and the next versions of Apple's iOS and Mac OSX. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

      Apple's passionate pitchman

      Steve Jobs' enthusiasm and sense of humor were on full display at the launch of some of Apple's greatest hits.
    • Apple updated its website Wednesday for the death of Steve Jobs.

      Web mourns Jobs' death

      Steve Jobs has consistently captured attention with his stage events. On Wednesday evening, the world took to the Web to mourn his passing.
    • SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 06:  Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivers the keynote address at the 2011 Apple World Wide Developers Conference at the Moscone Center on June 6, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Apple CEO Steve Jobs returned from sick leave to introduce Apple's new iCloud storage system and the next versions of Apple's iOS and Mac OSX.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

      Jobs: A life in photos

      Steve Jobs died Oct. 5, 2011 at age 56. TIME takes a look at the Apple founder's storied, visionary career.
    • Apple Computer co-founder and CESteve Jobs introduces the all-new flat-panel iMac computer during his keynote speech at the MacWorld Expo in January 2002.

      One thing we owe to Steve Jobs

      As his illness kept him away from the office, it's been clear that we Steve jobs more than just upping the pixels on the phone camera and an ever-faster processor.