Though competition propels innovation, it’s rarely bloodless. Concurrent advancements often pit rival innovators in a complex dance of cooperation and undermining that not only shapes technological progress, but business structure and culture.
National Geographic Channel’s American Genius examines those concepts by reconstructing the iconic rivalries of 20th-century American innovation, including those in space flight, personal computers, and electricity.
The eight-part docudrama—from Emmy-winning producer Stephen David (The Men Who Built America)—begins June 1 with Jobs vs. Gates and Wright Brothers v Curtiss, and continues through the month with Farnsworth vs. Sarnoff, Hearst vs. Pulitzer, Space Race (America vs. Soviet Union), Colt vs. Wesson, Oppenheimer vs. Heisenberg, and Tesla vs. Edison.
For the show’s promotion, some series participants—Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, and science advocate Bill Nye—weighed in at a Television Critics Association press conference in January, and Wozniak again at a teleconference last week, on the nature of genius, how innovation takes root, and finding balance between business vs. personal ethics, creativity vs. profit, and fulfilling a need vs. creating a new market.
“What keeps the U.S. in the game is innovation,” says Nye, who got involved with the show with the goal of getting more people to celebrate genius and appreciate the competition that nurtures it. “The geniuses in this TV show came up with new ideas. We don’t manufacture things the way we once did, so we want to encourage creativity. But everyone needs a fundamental understanding and respect for science. If we were to invest in public education and universities for the next 25 years, we could make the U.S. more competitive.”
Wozniak says that schools, as currently configured, and parents and peers, can mitigate against creativity and original thought. “You’re told you’re intelligent if you get a good grade, which means you answered every question the same as everyone else was expected to answer,” he says. “I just wanted [to develop a personal computer] because I was a computer geek. It doesn’t get acknowledged as genius until you have other things surrounding it—marketing configurations, the business, a lot of people taking it up and liking what you did. You’re just good at something and it turned out to be extremely valuable to the world. Occasionally, there can be incredible, valuable products to society that don’t grab onto a formula that can sell. A lot of companies have gone under because of that.”
While hard work is at the core of any breakthrough, Biz Stone reminds us that leaps forward are also a matter of timing, and, often, accident. “Circumstances have to be such that something can be invented now. For example, YouTube could not have been invented in 1990, because the Internet wasn’t fast enough, and there weren’t enough cameras and mobile phones,” he says. “At certain stages, things come together so that other things can be invented and then someone just gets the credit. And from then on it’s revisionist history. Another key point of innovation is repurposing stuff made for something else; when you take something meant to do [one thing] and building something [else] on top of it. “
It’s hard for a person to go down to the atomic level and build something new from scratch, says Wozniak. “You have to take these huge building blocks that other people have developed and are selling to build the modern hardware products. But there’s always a new idea. The most important product development in my life was the app store, letting third parties, all the millions of people out their with their own ideas, develop apps that do such incredibly powerful things for me that I used to do other ways.”
“People who are very similar in personalities and values can work better together,” says Wozniak. “Steve and I were very similar in values [wanting] to use technology to improve the lives of human beings and make them more masters of their destinies. In personality, he wanted to be out in front, be master of a company, make something in life, and be important, while I really just wanted to design computers and be a great engineer. I wasn’t into all the politics and the way businesspeople think, whereas Steve was. You need both of those, but you need other disciplines as well. Our company was not just two people.”
Wozniak uses his late partner and Bill Gates as examples of two different types of genius, both successful despite, or because of that difference. “Steve Jobs [had] a very futuristic forward vision, almost a bit of the science fiction, `Here’s what life could be,’ but Bill Gates had more of an executional ability, to build the things that are needed now, to build a company and make the profits now, in the short-term,” he says. “I think that was the biggest difference between them. Steve Jobs felt that Bill Gates should be giving up the current and pushing the world towards the future of a mouse-based point and click type of computer machinery, but that Bill Gates was in it more for the money. I mean the world market for computers grew ten times and Microsoft got it all. You really need the vision like Steve Jobs has, but the vision doesn’t go anywhere if you try to jump in and build products before they are cost effective for what they do, and return on investment is there.”
In the end, one person with a vision, who is inventing around his or her own desires, has proven to be the game-changing force behind many instances of American genius. “There are always probably a million people who have the same ability to look forward that Steve Jobs had,” says Wozniak. “But as far as which ones are turning them into products that are changing our lives, I look at Elon Musk, pursuing industries that everyone could say, for some reason, just don’t make sense—from solar to SpaceX to Tesla. Who would have thought to make a family-size electric car? Elon Musk has a large family. The iPhone came with every little detail handpicked by Steve Jobs so it would work well for him. The Apple II that started Apple was everything I wanted in a computer and it didn’t exist anywhere in the world. So, I had to build it. When one person with that kind of a mind is in control of a product, that’s when you get exceptionality. “