Steve Jobs Did Not “Invent” the iPhone, the Feds Did, Pelosi claims

by Matt Klassen on June 14, 2016


Last week House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced that the iconic iPhone was not “invented” by Apple’s Steve Jobs, as many might think, but instead was the product of tireless research on the behalf of the Federal government. You heard that right, the Feds made your iPhone…if Pelosi is to be believed of course.

“Anybody here have a smartphone?” the California Democrat asked attendees at a hearing on the Democratic National Convention platform. “In this smartphone, almost everything came from federal investments in research. […] They say Steve Jobs did a good idea designing it and putting it together. Federal research invented it.”

Now by unpacking this seemingly controversial statement just a bit, what we find is not some paradigm altering claim that Jobs wasn’t the tech visionary most view him as, but instead a truism so obvious and mundane that it barely needs to be stated: Jobs, like every other visionary in the history of the world, stood on the shoulders of those who came before…and in this case, one of those was very likely the Federal government.

But does that give the Federal government the right to take credit for the iPhone? Not a chance.

Recently I came across a syndicated rerun of the History Channel show “Modern Marvels,” which for the last two decades has given viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the production and development of various technologies we use in our lives. This particular episode, originally aired in 2001, focused on the dominance of the tech company Palm, and its then famous PDA organizer. As I watched the explanation of the features of the now defunct handheld device, I couldn’t believe just how much of that technology we saw appear several years later in the first iteration of Apple’s iPhone. Sleeker and more advanced, to be sure, but the same basic tech nonetheless.

That episode immediately sprang to mind when Pelosi’s comments came across my desk, not only because they come with the clickbait shock value we’ve all come to expect from modern online news reporting, but because it’s absolutely true. As Pelosi’s full quote goes on to say, “GPS, created by the military, flatscreens, LLD [sic], digital camera, wireless data compression, research into metal alloys for strength and lightweight, voice recognition — the list goes on and on…. They say Steve Jobs did a good idea designing it and putting it together. Federal research invented it.”

In fact, Apple itself would probably be the first to say that the iPhone was a culmination of many of the technologies available at the time. But that, folks, is where my agreement with Pelosi ends. Sure the Feds likely developed many of the components that we now see in modern mobile technology, but to say the government “invented” the iPhone, or even the smartphone, well that’s a step too far.

It would be like crediting Archimedes for the invention of the airplane, given that he understood and designed the first basic propeller screw or because he understood lift. Sure he knew the basics, and should be credited for such, there’s no way we would say he was the inventor of the first airplane.

With that in mind, let’s give credit where credit has always been due, to Apple and the late Steve Jobs. Sure we might say mobile development was more innovation than invention, but it took such visionaries to take what the Feds might have invented to create something useful and desirable. Or as Forbes writer Time Worstall explains, “Governments are really bad at innovations even if they can be useful in inventions. Or, if you prefer, the Feds really didn’t create the iPhone, Jobs and Apple did.”

In fact it seems Pelosi is even willing to make those same concessions, as noted by Drew Hammill, spokesman for Pelosi:

“The late Steve Jobs and the team at Apple that made the iPhone would be the first to tell you that they didn’t invent many of its core technologies we now take for granted,” he said. “Leader Pelosi counted Steve Jobs as friend and meant no disrespect to his legacy, but the point she was making is a valid one. Leader Pelosi believes that Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple, deserve enormous credit for taking federally-backed innovations off the shelf, refining them, commercializing them and turning them into a beautiful device that changed the world.”

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Written by: Matt Klassen. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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