Strictly Business: Business greats not very good

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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This week, Hollywood releases its rendition of the life of Steve Jobs, who is played by Ashton Kutcher in "Jobs." Expect to hear plenty of discussion, again, about the Apple co-founder's brilliance as one of our era's greatest entrepreneurs.

Under Jobs' leadership, Apple delivered breakthroughs in personal computers, followed by the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. During his exile from Apple, Jobs co-founded and led Pixar Animation Studios to creative heights and a personal fortune with "Toy Story" and other cinematic jewels.

We'll soon see how the new movie deals with Jobs' darker side. As recounted in Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography, Jobs was arrogant in the extreme, boorish to those who worked with and for him, and forever conflicted in some of his family relationships. It would be impossible to tell the Steve Jobs story without touching on his character, but advance reviews indicate that the movie focuses more on the technology Jobs created than the man himself.

It's likely that with Jobs, as with many towering figures in American business history, the harshness and the downright cruelty that often accompanies greatness will fade into a footnote in the standard biographical narrative. That's understandable: it's the product, not the creator, that has changed our lives.

Of course, many of America's greatest business icons were driven by ruthlessness, a powerful motivator in a hyper-competitive world. And we all know that many corporate titans, from Carnegie to Jobs, made their fortunes on the backs of workers who had to accept intolerable working conditions.

But as we allow our selective memories to elevate these business leaders to iconic status despite their deep character flaws, I find myself thinking about Thomas Edison, a household name for his development of the electric light bulb, his hundreds of inventions, and his pioneering work in industrial research.

Yet it's not so well known that "the Wizard of Menlo Park," as he's fondly remembered, carried his competitive drive beyond all limits of human decency. One example: In his losing battle to promote direct current against George Westinghouse's alternating current, Edison promoted the electric chair for executions, using Westinghouse's AC to create fear about its lethal dangers.

Then there is the tale of Topsy, a zoo elephant whose tragic story is gaining new attention with the recent publication of "Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant" by Michael Daly. The long-abused elephant was executed at New York's Coney Island in January 1903 using cyanide poisoning, strangling, and 6,600 volts of alternating current electricity.

Edison's film crews filmed what probably was the first death of a living being captured on a motion picture camera. Some speculate that it was this technological milestone, rather than the already faded battle over electric currents, that motivated the "wizard" to undertake the ghoulish public event, which still can be seen on YouTube.Yes, those were different times. But Edison failed the test of humanity in his own time as well as our own. The circumstances of Topsy's death should remind us not to wipe away all the warts of driven people as we set out to satisfy our need to create heroes.