Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans- Steve Jobs

Aug 3, 2015 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: 50 Greatest Americans- Steve Jobs

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. As we near the end of this book on great Americans, we now discuss a very famous contemporary—Steve Jobs. What do we know about his formative years?

Steve Jobs was born in San Francisco on February 24, 1955. His mother was Joanne Schieble, who was from Wisconsin, while his father was a Syrian national named Abdulfattah Jandali. The two met while attending graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. While visiting Jandali’s homeland in 1954, Schieble became pregnant. Because her father had made it apparent that he did not approve of her relationship with Jandali because he was a Muslim, Schieble recognized that marriage was not a viable option.

In addition, because of the stigma associated at that time with single mothers, Schieble decided that she would give her child up for adoption. Accordingly, she returned to the United States and gave birth to a baby boy. Originally, the facility where the delivery took place had arranged for the child to be adopted by an affluent family, but the couple changed their minds and adopted a girl instead. Schieble’s baby was then given to Paul and Clara Jobs. When she learned of this, Schieble tried to have the baby taken away from them because neither of them had a college degree.

To mollify her, Paul and Clara Jobs assured Schieble that they would make sure that the child received a college education. This finally won Schieble over, and she agreed to the adoption. The child was then named Steven Paul Jobs, and he and his new parents began their lives together. From an early age, Jobs demonstrated a superior intelligence, but he found it difficult to fit in at the schools he attended. Things reached rock bottom for Jobs when he was bullied at Crittenden Middle School in Mountain View, California. To spare him this abuse, his parents moved the family to Los Altos, California. Jobs still had trouble fitting in, but he did make a few friends. One of them was an individual who had just graduated from the high school that Jobs would attend.

That person was Steve Wozniak, and their friendship would prove instrumental to the development of the personal computer.

  1. His college years were particularly relevant. What do we know and what can we say about them?

When he was a senior in high school, it was suggested to Jobs that he should attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Known for its emphasis on academics, Reed was also regarded as a good fit for Jobs because the college had no sports programs or Greek system. Starting school in 1972, Jobs quickly became disenchanted with the college experience, feeling that he was needlessly spending his parents’ money. As a result, he decided to drop out, but chose to remain in Portland. While living there, he audited a number of classes at Reed. One of these classes was calligraphy, and years later Jobs asserted that the Mac computer would have had a much different keyboard had he not taken that particular course.

  1. His early forays into the world of technology established much of our current culture. Can you summarize his early success?

In retrospect, the success that Jobs first enjoyed in the realm of technology was due to his friend Steve Wozniak. In 1972, the Magnavox Company had introduced a digital console that allowed people to play what we know today as video games. One of the games available from Magnavox was a simulation of a tennis match. A start-up firm called Atari used this concept to develop a game that it called Pong. Obtaining a Pong game, Wozniak tinkered with it and made some modifications. Satisfied with the result, he then gave it to Jobs. In turn, Jobs took the modified Pong game to Atari, and the company was so impressed with what Jobs showed it that the firm immediately offered him a job. In a similar fashion, Wozniak aided Jobs with a project at Atari in 1974.

Using the basic concept of hitting a ball across a screen, executives at Atari envisioned a game where one player could direct balls at a barrier to knock it down. Atari gave it the name Breakout, but recognized that it required a large number of transistor-transistor logic chips. Hoping to reduce that number, the executives gave Jobs the assignment. Jobs went to Wozniak, proposing that the two work together on the task and split the reward. Agreeing to this arrangement, Wozniak set to work, and soon had achieved a significant reduction. Most famously, Jobs would once again benefit from the efforts of his friend in 1976. In that year, Wozniak invented the Apple I personal computer, and Jobs convinced him that there was a commercial market for such a product. Along with an Atari employee named Ronald Wayne, the three of them then started Apple Computers. Their endeavor revolutionized the world of computers.

  1. I know of no single person that has been involved in so many realms: the area of personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. How did he manage to stay involved or get involved in these various realms?

Jobs will clearly go down in history as one of the most successful business people of all time. As we have seen, he was involved in the creation of Apple Computers, and helped make that company a major part of the personal computer industry. In 1986, Jobs saw an opportunity to expand his horizons when Lucasfilms (the production company for famed film director George Lucas) offered to sell a branch known as The Graphics Group. Renamed Pixar, this entity signed a contract with Walt Disney Feature Animation to produce computer-generated films. “Toy Story,” the first of these productions, was a huge commercial success in 1995, and the company went on to produce many other lucrative films. Jobs also saw the potential inherent in the on-demand music industry, a vision that lead to him to buy Sound Jams MP, which was then renamed iTunes. In a similar fashion, Apple introduced the iPod music player in 2001. Apple entered the cell phone business in 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone. Three years later, the company would develop the iPad tablet computer. At the time that I am writing this, 450 patents have been issued in his name, with more pending.

  1. Sadly, he had health problems but remained active until his death. What were his last years like?

In the fall of 2003, Jobs was informed that he was suffering from a form of pancreatic cancer. This affliction usually has a low survival rate, but the type of pancreatic cancer he had was an unusually slow moving one. Normally, this gives the patient fairly good odds of survival—if the cancer is treated immediately with standard medical procedures. Instead, Jobs chose to fight his disease through the use of alternative medicine. Opinions differ on the matter, but most experts are convinced that this choice of a response doomed Jobs to an eventual death from cancer. Although he would live for another eight years after receiving the diagnosis, Jobs suffered from declining health during most of that period. Even though in ill health, Jobs remained productive. Indeed, he remained an active CEO for Apple until six weeks before his death.

  1. There have been a number of books and even movies made about his life—are there any you would suggest?

Quite a few authors have written books solely or partially about Steve Jobs, but the work that is generally regarded as being the definitive biography to this point is Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. This was the book that Director Danny Boyle chose to use as the basis for his forthcoming movie about Jobs. Set to open in October of 2015, the film will explore his life up to the introduction of the iMac, and will star Michael Fassbinder as Steve Jobs.

  1. What have I neglected to ask about the contributions of this individual?

By all accounts, Steve Jobs could be a very difficult person to deal with. His feud with the CEO of Dell Computers, for example, was an extremely bitter one, and in 2011 Jobs told President Barack Obama that he was headed towards being voted out of office in the 2012 election. Yet even his opponents recognized that Jobs was a brilliant visionary. Initially involved only in the business aspects of the computer industry, Jobs eventually became a technical innovator in his own right. For those Americans who find themselves living in the Age of Information, they can largely thank Steve Jobs for blazing the trail to that destination.

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