Steve Jobs' death at the age of 56 is profoundly sad. His story was the American dream writ large--a California boy with nothing but an idea and a lot of chutzpah, who, with Steve Wozniak, built a computer in his parents' garage and gave birth to the fastest-growing company in American history. Jobs' passing has sparked millions of well-deserved tributes. He's being remembered as a genius. Which he was. A visionary. He was that, too. And he's being called the Thomas Edison of the baby-boom generation. But that, believe it or not, may be selling Steve Jobs a little short.
To watch and read the transcript of the 1990 Steve Jobs interview featured in The Machine That Changed the World, visit the WGBH Open Vault archive.
Finding a comparison to the influence of Steve Jobs might require going back to the 15th century. That's when Johannes Gutenberg, a German blacksmith, introduced the moveable type printing press, which is widely regarded as the most important invention of the modern period. The printing press made books affordable, spread learning to the masses, and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy.
Unlike Gutenberg, Steve Jobs didn't invent the computer. He didn't even invent the personal computer. But with the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, with its intuitive graphical interface, a user-friendly device called a mouse, an affordable price, and a brilliant marketing effort, Steve Jobs put the power of the computer into the hands of the masses, ultimately changing forever almost every aspect of the way we live, work, create, communicate, innovate, get and share information, and spend our leisure time.
The printing press was the first machine that changed the world. The computer is arguably the second. That idea was the intellectual underpinning (and the title) of a groundbreaking NOVA mini-series that I was fortunate enough to work on two decades ago. It was the brainchild of Executive Producer Jon Palfreman and overseen by Paula Apsell, NOVA's Senior Executive Producer.
Production on The Machine That Changed the World began in 1989. Everybody in the computer community was excited about the prospect of a television series produced by NOVA that would bring the story of the computer to life; and many luminaries would participate in the series either on camera, as content advisors, or both. There were the founding fathers who most people outside of computer science have never heard of: Presper Eckert, Thomas Watson, Jr., Herman Goldstine, John Backus, Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and others. There were the rebels of the 1960s and 1970s: Alan Kay, Doug Englebart, Larry Tessler, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and so on. But there was only one rock star, and that was Steve Jobs.
As we started the series, we were warned time and time again. "You'll never get Steve Jobs on camera," those who knew him told us. But we didn't believe it. How could Steve Jobs, we wondered with no small amount of arrogance, allow a history of the computer to be told without participating in it? But his aversion to the media and the seemingly impenetrable privacy shield with which he surrounded himself were brought home to us when he finally responded to our multiple requests for an interview with an emphatic "No, thank you."
But we had an ace up our sleeve by the name of Robert Noyce. A legend in the computer world as the co-inventor of the microchip and co-founder of Intel, Bob Noyce was a strong supporter of The Machine That Changed the World and served on our advisory board. Like most in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs revered Bob Noyce, and a one-paragraph letter from Noyce changed Jobs' "no" into a "yes," giving our series one of a limited number of interviews Steve Jobs gave in his short lifetime. (Sadly, it's also likely that our series contains the last interview ever recorded with Bob Noyce, who died in the spring of 1990, about a month after our camera crew recorded his story.)
Steve Jobs, who was 35 when we interviewed him for The Machine That Changed the World, was a vital, vibrant, visionary. His untimely death can only make us wonder what else he would have accomplished if given more time.