The godfathers of Steve Jobs’s genius

October 10, 2011

In this week’s Newsweek, Harry Evans writes on the inspired innovators who made Steve Jobs’s triumphs possible.

By Sir Harold Evans

In the pantheon of American innovators, nobody comes close to the defining legacy of Steve Jobs. It is commonly misrepresented. He was not an Edison. He was not equipped to make a breakthrough in pure technology in the sense of circuits and frequencies. That is not what makes Apple unique. His gift to humanity was an imaginative apogee of form and function. He had the vision of a seer. He took the technology as it was and imposed on it his sublime taste, which millions joyously embraced as their own in personal computers, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Fully to appreciate the crowning nature of his “insanely great” creations, one has to look back at the jagged routes to his summits of beautiful utility.

The iPhone owes little to the man routinely described as the father of the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell went off on a prolonged honeymoon once he’d proved that sound waves could be converted into undulating electric current. He did nothing more after the marvelous moment on the evening of March, 10, 1876, when his young assistant, Thomas Watson, heard Bell’s voice come down the wire. “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!” but as Watson later remarked, the Bell phone was calculated more to develop the voice and lung than to enable conversation. The eureka moment of folklore overshadows what must follow if the brain wave is to reach the bustle of the marketplace. It was left to Thomas Edison and his associate Charles Batchelor to make the Bell phone audible by inventing a carbon-button transmitter for the rival Western Union. But then the world had to wait for someone to tackle the myriad obstacles to a national long-distance system. An Ohioan who started as a railway mail clerk did that. Theodore Vail merged Western Union and Bell, pooled patents, and founded the American Telegraph and Telegraph Co., the company Jobs chose for his launch partner in 2007. And Apple’s products depend on the microchip, whose origins lie in the transistor invented in 1947 at the Bell labs founded by Vail.

An American innovator whom Jobs admired, and in many ways resembled, was Edwin Land (1909–91), the willful optimist and brilliant scientist, best known for his instant self-developing Polaroid camera, though he had 533 patents. He preceded Jobs in giving to the public what they didn’t know they wanted. Both men insisted on the impossible. Both were secretive. Both drove their teams ferociously; Land’s associates were forbidden ever to utter the word “problem.” Land inspired, but it was another (and sorely neglected) innovator whose inventions made Jobs’s dreams practicable.

Edwin Howard Armstrong (1890–1954), was an enabler. As a boy radio ham recovering in Yonkers from St. Vitus’s dance (chorea), he built a wooden tower to fix an antenna 125 feet above the ground so he could pick up signals on his headphones. All his life he was intoxicated by height and speed. He rode a red Indian motorcycle to his studies at Columbia University. Then, step by inspired step, he revolutionized communication. He taught the world how to amplify signals, advancing the form of radio known as amplitude modulation (AM). He had some of Jobs’s theatrical flair. On the night of Nov. 5, 1935, in the clubhouse of the Institute of Radio Engineers on 39th Street, New York, he stood on the stage, a tall, phlegmatic man with a high-domed head, and presented what he called “a little demonstration.” He turned on a radio receiver. The listeners’ ears were attuned for the crackle of static. There was none. They heard, crystal clear, a pal of Armstrong’s announcing he was speaking from W2AG in Yonkers, which was just a name for his parlor and backyard antenna. The audience suspected a trick. It was merely a prelude to the drama conceived by Armstrong: Hear water poured into a glass! Listen to the crumpling of a piece of paper! Hear the striking of a match!

There followed a Mozart piano piece, then a tap on an Oriental gong with rapid dissonance in the upper registers. “The shimmering afterglow, a listener said, “hangs in the room with an uncanny lambent clarity.”

It was the first public demonstration of transmission on a broadband carrier wave by the modulation of very high frequencies—frequency modulation, or FM as we know it today. All the experts had said it was impossible. David Sarnoff, head of RCA, colluded with FCC officials to block and cripple FM for years because he sold AM radios, then simply stole Armstrong’s patented FM ideas for RCA. When Armstrong sued, Sarnoff drove him to despair and near bankruptcy by dragging out litigation for years. Armstrong’s wife, Marion, urged him to give up. They had such a furious row that she left him to stay with her sister. Armstrong was alone over the weekend in their grand apartment in the River House on 52nd Street. To go to court on Monday, he put on his overcoat, with scarf and gloves, climbed outside his 13th-floor bedroom, and jumped to his death.

Armstrong extended the potential of human communication to the ends of the earth and beyond the planet. Innovators build on the achievements of others; that is the commonplace of uncommon achievement. The shade of Armstrong’s genius prevails whenever we summon up a song from iTunes, but the tactile and visual appeal of the iPhone and iPod were beyond Armstrong’s vision. And the possibilities of digital transmission of any kind of message—music, words, images—were divined first not by Jobs but by a mathematician from the little town of Gaylord, Mich., one Claude Shannon (1916-2001), who liked to juggle beanbags while riding a unicycle of his invention.

We mourn Steve Jobs, but we can be sure his brave questing spirit will inspire others to push beyond the eureka moment to realize the ultimate expression of the magic inherent in the physics. When it happens we might call it the Jobs Effect.

Plus, read Aaron Sorkin on the surprise phone call he received from Steve Jobs.


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Kudos to the extreme genius and perseverance of Tom Edison and Edwin Armstrong. However, the godfather in this piece, the villainous movie type, is AT&T. The AT&T that “Steve Jobs chose for his partner” is a job shedding vestige of its original self which possesses all of the worst traits of a bad corporate citizen. AT&T should never be confused with the squeaky clean image so cultivated by Apple, yet Jobs chose AT&T? Please read the Wikipedia article on AT&T, and be sure to scroll down to the section entitled “Criticism and Controversies” for a good backgrounder on AT&T.

Posted by Vertigo | Report as abusive

What must I do to earn the obligatory “Sir” in front of my name….how awesome.

Posted by jaham | Report as abusive

On another post I was accused of bigotry because I faintly supported questions about a Hong Kong kid’s modified logo. I called it flattery.

The internet has done something that I would never have thought possible. The phrase “knowledge is power” has been replaced by a device and system that replaces knowledge with information and sometimes with information of dubious quality.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the difference. But it is terrifying to live without power. And I’m not at all sure knowledge has the slightest value anymore.

I may not love Steve Jobs – I don’t have one of his devices, but I could easily hate him and the net in spite of the fact that h it has given nobodies like me the chance to speak publicly.

BTW – that whole comment thread and the article were pulled or cannot be reached with the bookmark. That is not something that could be done with the old print media. And I was having a lot of fun.

I haven’t missed the fact that you are a “sir” but still don’t know what to make of them. You aren’t legal here in the US, but an awful lot would probably like them to be. The old Mrs. Astor and her robber baron crowd loved the ground you walked on and the coronets you used the wear.
I don’t tend to like Mrs. Astor but I really enjoyed her furniture. Every time I am unemployed I miss the old snob and her 400 bigots.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I think Louis B Meyer deserves an honourable mention, too. A salesman and showman who could recognise technical talent in others and intimidate them into signing contracts which a sober man never would, while at the same time determining and defining public taste by the simple expedient of never over-estimating it.

Though there is a pleasing symmetry in Jobs’ career, both starting and ending it with devices intended to make free phone calls at the carriers’ expense….

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

We know that the ‘desktop’ came from Xerox, and Word and Excel from Microsoft, Pagemaker from Adobe.etc. The use of RISC processors had their origin in UK’s ‘Archimedes’and were designed by UK’s AIM. And we know that Essex UK (and Newcastle)’s boy Jon Ives took his admiration of Braun’s designers to Apple to do the sleek stuff.

It was the ‘genius’ of Jobs to take take people and ideas into Apple to be ‘different’ and for the most part to make them work. His was the genius of a very superior “bricoleur”.

But who are the software engineers behind the operating systems? (developed when Jobs was in exile at NEXT.)

And who are the hardware engineers?

Who created the iTunes business model?

Who contributed the bits and pieces assembled to make Apple

Posted by cping500 | Report as abusive

I want to make a little correction. Sir Evans: You would not have worn a coronet and are not a duke. You are a Knight and there is no equivalent in the US. Britain canonized you in a sense. No one is going to canonize Mt.Jobs. In as little as a few more years, he may not be of interest to anyone but scholarly archaeologists of technological development.

I don’t think Mrs. Astor and her crowd would have been as delighted with your title. They were very fond of the real estate of Dukes. But her educated offspring would have been able to appreciate merit. I like to think so anyway.

As for genius talk – I read years ago that the label “Genius” was most widely used during the later renaissance period to flatter notable artists and scientific figures. It was helpful to an absolutist lord to be surrounded by luminaries.

In the ancient period the Romans invented the idea of genius to mean the innate spirit of a person, their inner guiding light or their “soul” or what ever it was in a person that is somehow undefinable and even “divine” that drives them to do great things. Today they might call it “self actualizing” or Jung would have called it “Individuation”.

But in a world of genius the title is getting shop worn. And the world is giving birth to so many super-sized people while simultaneously making hundreds of millions of inconvenient and expensive little people, that it may not be too wise to flatter the big ones too much. It might bring out their inner Nero or Caligula?

It doesn’t matter what genius claims it knows. It matters much more what everyone else knows. But it sounds like Mr. Jobs knew that.

A cat can knock a pretty ornament off a Christmas tree.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Re ‘What must I do to earn the obligatory “Sir” in front of my name’ …

You must agree to become property of the Queen. Coincidentally, it is obligatory to use the “Sir” in addressing this man only if you too are property of the Queen.

Names are attributes of property that are specified by owners of that property for the convenience of their owners.

However, more technically since this is a bankrupt world, in the foregoing, substitute “secured party creditor” in place of “owner”, and substitute “debtor” for “property”.

In “polite” society, the appellation “Sir” may be used upon this man to open a channel of communication and he is obligated to respond, lest he be deemed not a gentleman.


Posted by NotSubjectTo | Report as abusive

While I am awed and inspired by Steve Jobs achievements, this article is completely out of order in its belittling the achievements of others, and outright misrepresentation of the truth. For example, regarding Alexander Graham Bell we are told “He did nothing more after the marvelous moment on the evening of March, 10, 1876″, which ignores things like patenting the telephone, and starting the Bell Telephone company. I wouldn’t call that “doing nothing more”.


Posted by ArmstrongAdam | Report as abusive