The cliché: "The twentieth century’s Thomas Edison has stepped from the stage with the resignation" says The New Yorker's Ken Auletta. Who could Auletta be talking about but the most newsworthy man of the hour, departing Apple CEO Steve Jobs? Indeed, the internet is abuzz with pseudo-obituaries for Jobs, who announced his resignation yesterday. But more than that, it is abuzz with Auletta-like comparisons to that other famed inventor Thomas Edison Therese Poletti of The Wall Street Journal confirms the trend: "Now compared by many pundits to American business legends such as Thomas Edison..." So does The Economist: "Apple's former boss 'the Thomas Edison of this century'..." they write.
Where it's from: Bloggers and commentators began occasionally floating the comparison between the two innovators several years ago, about when it became clear that Jobs would be more than a one- or two-hit wonder with Pixar, the Mac computer, the iPod, and later the iPad. But the comparison really took hold in the media when Jobs announced he would take a leave of absence for his health back in January. That's about when people started really reflecting on a legacy that seemed to be drawing to a close. "The fact is that the best points of comparison with Jobs may not be Bill Gates and Jack Welch so much as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford," wrote Bloomberg Businessweek's Rich Jaroslovsky at the time.
Why it's catching on: No doubt that his resignation was greeted with an outpouring of sentiment and reflection. Writers sought to explain to the casual reader, almost to implore him to understand, just how foundational and important Steve Jobs has been. Jaroslovsky continues to flesh out the comparison:
Edison wasn’t the first to harness electricity, and Ford didn’t invent the auto. But both were geniuses in taking the technologies of the day and making them accessible to the masses, in the process changing the way everyday people did everyday things. And that’s what Jobs has done..
The New Yorker's Auletta also fleshes out the analogy:
The scope of the technologies that sprang from or were transformed by Jobs’s Apple laboratories—the Mac, the mouse, the laptop, Pixar, iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iPad—is awesome, as was that from Edison’s Menlo Park. And Jobs, like Edison, accomplished his imaginative feats without the crutch of survey research, of endless polls to tell him what people wanted. He knew that people could not know what they wanted, because they had no frame of reference for an iPhone that delivered a small miracle as it fit into the palm of a hand.
Why else? The comparison is sometimes less complimentary. While these writers are almost glowing in their comparison, likening Jobs to Edison, the game-changing innovator, other bloggers have drawn the parallel in order to liken Jobs to Edison, the angry and controlling tycoon. Some bloggers have pointed out comparisons between the two stretch to their iron-gripped personalities and possessiveness over patents. A post at Mosspuppet recalls that Edison once had a patent on making movies. So anyone who wanted to make a movie had to pay him to do it. So maybe when bloggers complain about Apple's aggressive patent litigation, they should be thankful they're working with the 20th-century Thomas Edison, not the actual Thomas Edison. At least they only have to worry about nit-picky Apple features like navigating through photo galleries on touch screens, not all of the film industry.