In late November, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on 60 Minutes that, within five years, his company would be able to deliver packages via its own private fleet of drones. The media, of course, rushed to attack the plan. “Get set for the rise of the machines,” the New York Post warned, while Business Insider opined that the drones would “offer up a whole new universe of surveillance.” TechCrunch, noting that UPS was also considering drone deliveries, warned readers that, in the future, a “constant robot background hum” was “increasingly inevitable,” and the Wall Street Journal dismissed the claim as “little more than puffery.”
While the criticisms of Bezos’ plan varied from accusations of impracticality to claims of illegality, they largely boiled down to one conclusion: His drone proposal was crazy.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Bezos—and Amazon, for that matter—have been accused of insanity, or at least poor planning. Six years ago, the company took fire for its Kindle e-reader, which critics attacked as too expensive, too unwieldy and too likely to cause electrocution. For that matter, just last year, after the New Yorker printed a satire suggesting that Bezos purchased the Washington Post by mistake, news outlets around the world reported the story as true.
While the wisdom of some of Bezos’ moves has yet to be proven, others have fundamentally changed the world. Judging by the responses he has generated, it’s clear that the mogul’s decisions often tiptoe on the line between craziness and brilliance, genius and madness. The question is, what separates the two extremes?
The Genius And The Madman
That question is difficult to answer, mostly because the line between genius inventors and mad scientists isn’t clear-cut. Forget Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll—truly insane madmen don’t create inventions that disrupt entire industries. And on the genius inventor end of the scale, people with world-changing ideas tend to be at least a little odd, almost by definition. It takes a skewed perspective to imagine something that will transform life as we know it.
When it comes to defining the spectrum between genius and craziness, Nikola Tesla and his rival Thomas Edison seem a good place to start. On one end, there’s Edison, the steady inventor who planned and plotted, the “one percent inspiration” and “99 percent perspiration” worker who chipped away at problems until he had solutions. He built several successful businesses from the ground up. On the surface, at least, he appeared to be the perfect personification of mainstream American values.
On the other end, there was Tesla, a wizard-like genius experimenting with radio waves and wireless electrical transmission, leapfrogging over existing technology and laying the groundwork for a century’s worth of scientific growth in America. He was obsessed with the number three, was prone to visions, had a photographic memory and claimed that he never slept for more than two hours at a stretch.
In reality, neither Tesla nor Edison lived up (or down) to their reputations. Tesla, after all, managed to convince some of the top investors of his day of his reliability. As for Edison, he also had his own demons: He claimed to be able to construct a “spirit telephone” that would enable him to talk to the dead. And, for that matter, his demonstrations of the dangers of alternating electrical current, which were part of a long-standing feud with Tesla, culminated in the public executions of animals, including an elephant.
Edison and Tesla were hardly the only inventors who nosed up to the line between genius and craziness. Einstein was famously disorganized, Howard Hughes suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder and even Steve Jobs, the godfather of contemporary design innovation, was prone to bizarre obsessions and beliefs. But, despite their relative strengths and weaknesses, some inventors manage to emerge as geniuses, while others become known as mad scientists. How does that happen? And, more importantly, how does it affect the way that their inventions are received?
Consider The Audience
When the Kindle first appeared, its critics attacked it for lacking the sensual pleasures of traditional books. They noted that it didn’t feel right in their hands, that the screen was too hard to read, that it didn’t smell bad enough. Ultimately, they seemed to agree, the e-reader failed because it was not as visceral as a book. Or, as Robert Darnton wrote in the New York Review of Books, words on a computer screen have “no texture, no context. It's there and then it's gone. If it's to last, then the getting of knowledge should be tangible."
Then again, for many of the early adopters of e-readers, the sensual impact of books was felt less in the fingertips than in the small of the back. Traditional hard-copy books, after all, can be heavy and unwieldy, which makes them less than ideal for commuters, travelers and pretty much anyone who spends a lot of time on his or her feet. Kindles, on the other hand, weigh a few ounces and can pack hundreds of hours of reading into a tiny plastic case. In other words, the Kindle had an audience of millions of consumers who simply did not yet realize that they needed it.
That lesson—create a need, then fill it—lay at the heart of much of Thomas Edison’s success. As Leonard DeGraaf, Edison archivist and author of Edison and the Rise of Innovation, notes, Edison basically changed the way innovations were developed in America. “He made it possible for the United States economy to turn innovation into a business,” DeGraaf explains. Consumers knew that they could trust Edison’s products, and they knew that they could look to his laboratory for the next generation of exciting innovations. In other words, Edison built, and then fulfilled, a consumer hunger for futuristic innovations.
While Edison’s inventions were ambitious, they were also economically viable. After all, "Edison wanted to make money, which means that he wasn’t going to invent anything that wasn’t going to sell," DeGraaf says. "That means that he had to have a sense of what people needed, or what they were willing to buy.”
In some ways, this public image is demonstrated by a pair of photographs: Among Edison’s most lasting images are of the stoic inventor cradling a light bulb. On the other hand, the most lasting image of Tesla may be of the wizard reading a book in a lab chair as electrical bolts arc around him. In those two photos, we see the first secret of the two inventors: While one is holding a marketable commodity, the other is scaring the kids. People want light bulbs in their homes—they don’t want lightning.
While Amazon imitates Edison's careful balancing of great innovations with great PR, it's hardly the only contemporary company to do so. Apple spends a great deal of time and energy in marketing. Whether the latest tool is a tiny machine that holds thousands of songs or an electronic pad capable of organizing one's entire life, the company works hard to convince consumers that they not only can use the latest technology, but that they need it to lead a fulfilling life. Between its Apple stores and its Apple lifestyle products, its “lean back” technological focus and its emphasis on elegant design, Apple has managed to make itself both a harbinger of the future and a familiar, trustworthy brand, an innovator that offers the best inventions of tomorrow to improve lives today.
Consider Your Investors
The craziest thing about Amazon may be its business model: As business writer Morgan Housel recently noted, between 1997 and 2013, Amazon made $2 billion in profits on $315 billion in sales. In other words, the company has a lifetime profit margin of about 0.5 percent, a level that Housel describes as “pathetic.”
And, to be fair, Amazon’s lifetime profitability only tells half the story. Late in 2013, the company announced $17.99 billion in third quarter sales … and a net loss of $41 billion. Under normal circumstances, any investor worth his or her salt would have bailed on the company long ago. Instead, Amazon’s stock price rose by 10 percent in the same period.
So how does a company with such small profits keep its investors happy? The answer is, Bezos—and many of his investors—realize that, while Amazon has a miniscule profit margin, it is continually worming its way into every aspect of American commercial life, from book publishing to art sales, clothing purchases to movie rentals. Amazon’s investors are happy because they understand that, increasingly, the company is rendering almost every other retailer unnecessary.
This focus on investors is key. After all, while it’s easy to idolize the great inventor working in his own lab and setting his own agenda, the truth is that most great inventors were actually working for someone else. This is certainly true of Edison, who got his start working for telegraph companies.
As DeGraaf says, “When Edison was a telegraph inventor in the 1870s, his agenda was largely driven by the telegraph companies, because they were the ones that were funding him.” While he's best known for the light bulb, the movie camera and other inventions he created in his laboratory, the reason Edison got on the map was because of the telegraph inventions and stock tickers his benefactors wanted him to make.
Edison “made innovation safe for inventors,” in part through his focus on industries and products, DeGraaf says. “Investors could put their money in with a reasonable expectation that they were going to get something out of it. They knew that Edison would come through. He lowered the risk of innovation," he explains.
This model continues today. Thomas Rondeau is a researcher associated with the University of Pennsylvania. As a private contractor focused on wireless radio, most of his work is directed by his employers, he says. “I have three basic contracts, which provide most of my work,” he explains. “So I’ve got a fairly small number of people who are paying me to develop things that I’m interested in developing. There is demand for what I do, but it’s demand from a few people.”
Even after Edison became his own boss, he stuck with the industry model. In fact, historians have often noted that Edison didn’t merely invent machines, he invented whole industries, such as the recording industry, the electric generation industry, the lighting industry and the movie industry. Light bulbs led to light bulb factories, moving pictures led to movie studios, and the Edison gramophone led to the creation of record producers and companies.
Or, to put it into a more contemporary context, Amazon’s Kindle led to e-books, which led to e-publishing, which led to Oliver Pötzsch. Last year, Pötzsch became Amazon Publishing’s first author to sell a million copies.
But if Edison focused on making his investors happy, Tesla, by comparison, seemed hell-bent on alienating and irritating his money men. As Marc Seifer, author of Wizard: The Life and Times of Nicola Tesla, notes, one of Tesla’s top investors, J.P. Morgan, was deeply invested in the electrical infrastructure of the day: He had wood companies that provided the power line poles to transmit energy, mines that produced the wires that carried the electricity, and other commodities. Tesla’s assertion that he could transmit energy through the air flew directly in the face of Morgan’s economic model. “At some point,” Seifer explains, “Morgan became afraid that Tesla would succeed. If you have a wireless system, you no longer need copper, you no longer need rubber, you no longer need wood. Morgan had copper mines, he had rubber plantations, he had huge lumber holdings. Tesla threatened all these industries if his wireless system succeeded.”
In other words, while Bezos has created new industries for his investors, Tesla threatened to undermine many of the key investments of his day.
Consider Your Timing
Another line between the genius and the mad scientist is the matter of timing—or, more specifically, releasing a product when the market is ready, the supplies are in place and the price is reasonable. Good timing can be the difference between a successful product and a patent that languishes, says Washington-based patent attorney Jorie Stroup. “I had a client who had this idea for microrobots that were tiny and could attach and detach themselves to make anything you want,” she recalls. “The trouble is the technology to make those cheaply and sell them is not here yet. It’s a great idea, but not doable with the technology we have today.”
Tesla's timing was premature, to say the least. As Seifer notes, the inventor was working on some of the basic ideas for wireless telecommunication in 1903, decades before most homes had telephones. “Tesla told Morgan, ‘I’m going to advance the world by a century. I have the technology to create an unlimited number of wireless channels. Just give me the money to finish this.’” But when the funding fell through, Tesla refused to compromise. “Tesla was going to do the whole shebang or he was going to do nothing," Seifer says. "I always thought that he should have dropped back and punted. If he couldn’t have done the worldwide wireless system, he should have done a smaller version in New York. But for him, it was all or nothing.”
Edison sometimes had timing problems of his own. As DeGraaf notes, Edison experimented with electric cars in the early 1900s, but found that the high cost of batteries, particularly when balanced against the low cost of gas-powered engines, made the idea unfeasible. “By 1910,” he explains, “it was pretty clear to Edison that he was not going to make a dent in the personal automobile market.” Of course, if you fast forward 100 years, rising gas costs and lower electricity costs have reversed the equation, as the Toyota Prius, the Chevy Volt, and even Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors, might demonstrate.
So Does Bezos Pass the Edison/Tesla Test?
By this comparison, is Bezos crazy? Well, probably not. His wild-eyed idea is actually not that improbable: The technology exists to make his drone plan a reality, consumers are ready for it and many might be willing to pay extra for same-day delivery.
Ultimately, though, Bezos’ announcement was a stroke of public relations genius. Not long after his 60 Minutes interview ran, Forbes crowned him the “most interesting CEO in tech,” pushing aside former title holder Elon Musk. As for the Wall Street Journal’s comment that his announcement was “little more than puffery,” the article went on to honor it as a brilliant public relations coup. After all, columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote, while there seemed to be almost universal agreement that Bezos’ drone air force was illegal and impractical, the fact remains that the CEO managed to get everyone talking about Amazon right as the Christmas shopping season was beginning in earnest. And, as families around the country discussed same-day delivery around the Christmas tree, the line between mad scientist and marketing genius, at least in Bezos’ case, completely disappeared.
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Photos: Getty Images, The Library of Congress, Tesla Wardenclyffe Project, Getty Images