What do Bill Gates, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison have in common? That sounds like the beginning of a joke, but only because Gates jokes are as pervasive as Windows 95. You can surf on the Internet from "The secret diary of Bill Gates," featuring a bare-chested Gates with a body builder's physique, to "Punch Bill," which lets you vent your aggressions on Microsoft's CEO.
But the question is actually not a joke. These men's fame serves as a source of inspiration and allows them to have an economic impact well beyond their fields of business and their times.
They share some striking similarities. All three showed their talents early on. Ford built his first steam engine at fifteen. At this age, Gates was busy devising software to analyze traffic patterns in Seattle. Edison, who sold newspapers and snacks on the railroad, experimented with chemicals until he started a fire in the baggage car of a train. Success, in all three cases, hinged on combining an innate business savvy with a true understanding of technologies that would transform society. Thomas Edison is the epitome of invention. But his entrepreneurial drive is often overlooked. Edison, it is said, decided to work only on things that people would buy after his first invention, a vote-recording device, turned out to be something that legislatures did not buy. He then created the world's first industrial research laboratory and founded the Edison Electric Company, the predecessor of today's General Electric.
Ford and Gates are tied in the popular imagination with the automobile and the personal computer, although neither one of them actually made the invention. Ford did hold many patents on automotive mechanisms, and Gates spent countless hours creating software. But they soon became devoted to management and are mainly regarded as businessmen. Yet their achievement wasn't just the product of raw talent. They were influenced by culture and had role models and heroes to emulate. In fact, a stream of influence links Edison to Ford to Gates.
Edison preceded Ford by about two decades and Ford's admiration of his predecessor is still evident today. At the heart of the Ford empire, in the Greenfield Village Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, lies Edison's original Menlo Park laboratory. Ford had it moved there, brick by brick, from New Jersey.
Gates, in turn, studied Ford's example. An autographed photo of Ford hung above Gates's desk when Fortune interviewed him in 1995. When the reporters asked him about it, Gates characterized the photo more as a warning than as a form of reverence. "There are many lessons about the dangers of success, and Henry is one of them," he said. Gates saw Ford as an entrepreneur who let himself grow complacent and allowed General Motors to wrest industry leadership from his company. The legacy of Ford thus helped to fan a competitive spirit of legendary proportions.
Inspiration, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. For all of those who laugh at Bill Gates jokes today, there are a few teenage geniuses tinkering in their basements, who draw lessons from the Gates saga and dream of ways to beat it.