Correction Appended: Nov. 18, 2011
REINVENTING THE INVENTOR
In the age of Steve Jobs, it's all about perfecting the final product. Nobody remembers the guy who had the idea in the first place
Tell me what you think of when you read the word inventor. (If Professor Jack Gallant of Berkeley, Calif., were here and you were in his fMRI machine, he could read your mind and tell you himself. But more of him anon.) I'll tell you what I think of: a little guy with white hair and a white lab coat from an old Disney cartoon. He's tinkering with an old-fashioned computer you can tell it's a computer because it has a lightbulb sticking out of it. He looks like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future.
I think of either that or a sad sack in a plaid blazer who in the 1960s came up with a clever idea that some giant corporation took all the credit for the guy in that movie about the guy who invented intermittent windshield wipers. I think Greg Kinnear played him.
It wasn't always like this. Inventors used to be cool. They used to be towering, romantic figures, rogue geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin and Nikola Tesla, who called down lightning and stole the holy fire of the gods. If there had been movies back then, these men would have been played by Taylor Lautner. But all that has changed. Now they're not even played by George Clooney. What happened? How did inventors lose their divine aura? When did scientific innovation stop being sexy? I place the blame, reluctantly, on the late, great Steve Jobs.
That's to take nothing away from Jobs, a true genius who revolutionized at least four industries. But an inventor he was not. What Jobs did was perfect other people's inventions. He optimized them. He had the will and the skill and the caliper eye to nail down the numbers to the far-right decimal places. He buffed and polished other people's ideas until they gleamed with the holy light of irresistible retail commodities. Jobs wasn't an idea man; he was a remix artist.
Steve Wozniak: he was an inventor. Charles Thacker, Butler Lampson and Douglas Engelbart were inventors they were the guys at Xerox PARC from whom Jobs borrowed much of the look and feel of the original Macintosh's revolutionary graphical user interface. But hardly anybody knows their names. What poor bastard invented the first digital music player? Who invented the tablet computer? The smart phone? I don't know. You don't know either. They were never on the cover of Time. But we all know who came up with the iPod and the iPad and the iPhone. He's been on the cover eight times.
You don't want to romanticize inventors. Recent scholarship on innovation, such as Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From, suggests that most inventions are the result of slow-burning collaborative efforts hatched in academic labs and corporate R&D departments rather than in some isolated genius's garage.