In graduate school I read the masterful Introduction to Joel Mokyr’s edited volume on the British Industrial Revolution. But I did not make the Steve Jobs connection. Malcolm Gladwell did:
One of the great puzzles of the industrial revolution is why it began in England. Why not France, or Germany? Many reasons have been offered. Britain had plentiful supplies of coal, for instance. It had a good patent system in place. It had relatively high labor costs, which encouraged the search for labor-saving innovations. In an article published earlier this year, however, the economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr focus on a different explanation: the role of Britain’s human-capital advantage—in particular, on a group they call “tweakers.” They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.
In 1779, Samuel Crompton, a retiring genius from Lancashire, invented the spinning mule, which made possible the mechanization of cotton manufacture. Yet England’s real advantage was that it had….. Richard Roberts, also of Manchester, a master of precision machine tooling—and the tweaker’s tweaker. He created the “automatic” spinning mule: an exacting, high-speed, reliable rethinking of Crompton’s original creation. Such men, the economists argue, provided the “micro inventions necessary to make macro inventions highly productive and remunerative.”
Was Steve Jobs a Samuel Crompton or was he a Richard Roberts? In the eulogies that followed Jobs’s death, last month, he was repeatedly referred to as a large-scale visionary and inventor. But Isaacson’s biography suggests that he was much more of a tweaker. He borrowed the characteristic features of the Macintosh—the mouse and the icons on the screen—from the engineers at Xerox PARC, after his famous visit there, in 1979. The first portable digital music players came out in 1996. Apple introduced the iPod, in 2001, because Jobs looked at the existing music players on the market and concluded that they “truly sucked.” Smart phones started coming out in the nineteen-nineties. Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, more than a decade later, because, Isaacson writes, “he had noticed something odd about the cell phones on the market: They all stank, just like portable music players used to.” The idea for the iPad came from an engineer at Microsoft, who was married to a friend of the Jobs family, and who invited Jobs to his fiftieth-birthday party.
Here is the paper Gladwell mentions. Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr conclude:
Are there any policy lessons from this for our age? The one obvious conclusion one can draw from this is that a few thousand individuals may have played a crucial role in the technological transformation of the British economy and carried the Industrial Revolution. The average level of human capital in Britain, as measured by mean literacy rates, school attendance, and even the number of people attending institutes of higher education are often regarded as surprising low for an industrial leader. But the useful knowledge that may have mattered was obviously transmitted primarily through apprentice-master relations, and among those, what counted most were the characteristics of the top few percentiles of highly skilled and dexterous mechanics and instrument-makers, mill-wrights, hardware makers, and similar artisans. This may be a more general characteristic of the impact of human capital on technological creativity: we should focus neither on the mean properties of the
population at large nor on the experiences of the “superstars” but on the group in between. Those who had the dexterity and competence to tweak, adapt, combine, improve, and debug existing ideas, build them according to specifications, but with the knowledge to add in what the blueprints left out were critical to the story. The policy implications of this insight are far from obvious, but clearly if the source of technological success was a small percentage of the labor force, this is something that an educational policy would have to take into account.