Before Steve Jobs: 5 Corporate Innovators Who Shaped Our World

The former head of Apple comes from a long line of American innovators who changed society

David Sarnoff
In 1912, as the HMS Titanic was going down, Sarnoff was involved with using early radio equipment to transmit information about the ship’s demise. Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
(Monica M. Davey / epa / Corbis)
Editor's Note: Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011 due to complications from pancreatic cancer. This story has been edited to reflect the recent news. When Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO from Apple, he did so as one of the most remarkable innovators of our time. From the personal computer to the iPod to the iPhone, he has played a significant role in shaping devices that wed impressive functionality with superior design, redefining what we imagine technology can do in our lives.

“To me, Jobs is best known for really sensing the pulse of what was going to be cool, and take it to the next level of the use of technology in society in technology,” says David Allison, a curator at the American History Museum who specializes in information technology. “It’s not so much satisfying demand, it’s creating demand for stuff that you didn't even think you wanted.”

Jobs is one of the latest in a series of innovators in American history who have remade the technological landscape through expertise and imagination.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison
(Library of Congress - digital ve / Science Faction / Corbis)
In his ability to envision novel technologies and make them an essential element of daily life, Edison was the original innovator in the Jobs mold. “What he did first with lighting, but later with movies, was that he sold a new concept, he created a market that wasn't there,” says Allison.

His pioneering efforts with electricity distribution, the light bulb, the phonograph and film introduced completely new technologies to the public. For them to gain acceptance, he drew upon his impressive skills as a promoter. “There's certainly no question about him being a great marketer, as well as a great technologist,” Allison says.

David Sarnoff

David Sarnoff
(Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis)
In 1912, as the HMS Titanic was going down, Sarnoff was involved with using early radio equipment to transmit information about the ship’s demise. From then on, he realized the importance of the medium as a mass communication device, soon proposing a “Radio Music Box” so that wireless radio technology could enable enthusiasts to enjoy music at home.

“Sarnoff was always pushing and selling the next mode of communication,” says Allison. “He made a name in radio, but then was also the pioneer of color television in America.” At RCA, he drove engineers to perfect a color TV system that would become the standard for U.S. manufacturers and broadcasting.

Lee Iacocca

Lee Iacocca
(Bettmann / Corbis)
Iacocca is one of few innovators that match Jobs’ penchant for inspiring consumer desire through original design. At Ford, he led the creation of the legendary Mustang, redefining the concept of a muscle car for a generation of Americans.

“It wasn't such a great car in terms of technology, but it really was a great car in terms of capturing the imagination in design,” Allison says. Iacocca’s greatest talent was anticipating the next big thing and selling it to the mainstream. “He captured the pulse of America at the time, and rode that in much the same way that the iPod did,” says Allison.

Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore

Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore
(Intel Photos)

No innovators have been as responsible for the brute technological horsepower that enabled the information technology revolution as Noyce, right, and Moore, founders of Intel. In the early 1970s, they created the first successful commercial microprocessors, and the company has remained the premier computer hardware supplier ever since.

“They were always focused on getting more and more capability onto chips: smaller, cheaper, much more powerful,” says Allison. “Their belief was that if they got the technology better and better, it would be adopted.” The Intel chips that power today’s PCs and handheld devices are a testament to their foresight.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates
(Reuters / Corbis)
As founder of Microsoft, Gates’ biggest achievements as an innovator lie not in creating new technologies from scratch, but in maximizing their earning potential and bringing them to the market. “Gates always seemed to be really focused on understanding the business side,” says Allison, “what was going to sell particularly in the corporate marketplace.” From Microsoft Windows to Microsoft Office, he has played a uniquely significant role in shaping the state of modern computer software around the globe.