Stephen Wolfram on 25 Years of Steve Jobs' Influence

wolframalpha logoWith WolframAlpha having just made a splash earlier this week for its role in the Siri personal assistant included in the forthcoming iPhone 4S, Stephen Wolfram's look back at how Steve Jobs influenced him over the course of 25 years is particularly relevant.

Wolfram, who gained fame for his development of the computational software Mathematica in the 1980s, was introduced to Jobs in 1987 when Jobs was at NeXT and Wolfram was developing his software. The two held a number of discussions, perhaps the most notable of which resulted in Jobs suggesting that the software be called Mathematica. Wolfram describes Jobs' approach to product naming:

I’d actually considered that name, but rejected it. I asked Steve why he thought it was good, and he told me his theory for a name was to start from the generic term for something, then romanticize it. His favorite example at the time was Sony’s Trinitron. Well, it went back and forth for a while. But in the end I agreed that, yes, Mathematica was a good name. And so it has been now for nearly 24 years.

But Jobs' contributions went well beyond the software's name, extending to a number of suggestions to improve its usability.

As Mathematica was being developed, we showed it to Steve Jobs quite often. He always claimed he didn’t understand the math of it (though I later learned from a good friend of mine who had known Steve in high school that Steve had definitely taken at least one calculus course). But he made all sorts of “make it simpler” suggestions about the interface and the documentation. With one slight exception, perhaps of at least curiosity interest to Mathematica aficionados: he suggested that cells in Mathematica notebook documents (now CDFs) should be indicated not by simple vertical lines—but instead by brackets with little serifs at their ends. And as it happens, that idea opened the way to thinking of hierarchies of cells, and ultimately to many features of symbolic documents.

Jobs and Wolfram continued their relationship, with Mathematica eventually being included with every NeXT computer, several of which made their way to Switzerland where Tim Berners-Lee used them to develop and launch the World Wide Web.

Wolfram goes on to discuss several other interactions with Jobs, including the dating advice Wolfram offered to Jobs after he met his future wife Laurene and the advice Wolfram received from Jobs questioning why Wolfram would include quotes from high-profile sources on the back cover of a book he was writing.

At the time, all sorts of people were telling me that I needed to put quotes on the back cover of the book. So I asked Steve Jobs if he’d give me one. Various questions came back. But eventually Steve said, “Isaac Newton didn’t have back-cover quotes; why do you want them?” And that’s how, at the last minute, the back cover of A New Kind of Science ended up with just a simple and elegant array of pictures.

Wolfram's summary of Jobs offers a similar take to that of others who have shared their perspectives on Jobs' life, citing his "clarity of thought" and willingness to take bold steps.

To me, Steve Jobs stands out most for his clarity of thought. Over and over again he took complex situations, understood their essence, and used that understanding to make a bold definitive move, often in a completely unexpected direction.

Steve Jobs died yesterday at the age of 56, and we've been collecting condolences and remembrances in our main article on his passing.

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Top Rated Comments

hismikeness Avatar
165 months ago
I hope more and more brilliant people (like Wolfram) keep coming out with these stories about how SJ influenced them in some way. It's incredible how many there's been already.

RIP
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)
MacPioneer Avatar
165 months ago
I've been teary on and off since I heard the news, which is kind of embarrassing for a male senior citizen to admit.

I've not posted anything anywhere, despite having worked for Steve at NeXT in the late eighties, but this thread brought back memories. I was doing developer relations for NeXT, so I was involved in many of the meetings with folks like Wolfram. (Don't get me started on refereeing meetings between Jobs and Gates :) Mathematica was a fascinating program, even in those early days, and I enjoyed supporting Theo Gray, who did the actual port to the NeXT machine (and more recently has created the "Elements" app for the iPad).

I've lusted after Mathematica for the last quarter-century, but coud never justify springing for its four-figure price. The instant Wolfram announced the "personal" edition, I jumped on it. I love using it to explore mathematical ideas, purely for my own amusement. This sort of application is a "brain amplifier" - it enhances an ability the brain alteady posesses. I hope to see it on the iPad someday - I think that would be a true embodiment of one of Steve's dreams.
Score: 6 Votes (Like | Disagree)
FloatingBones Avatar
165 months ago
Stephen Wolfram is another genius, and I believe his company's products will have an increasing influence on our lives. Wolfram Alpha (http://www.wolframalpha.com/) is an amazing tool; it's a great tool to have available in Siri queries. Wolfram mentioned CDF files in mathematica; they distribute a free CDF Player (http://www.wolfram.com/cdf-player/) for PCs and Macs (and have noted that it's coming soon (http://www.wolfram.com/cdf/adopting-cdf/supported-platforms.html) to iOS and Android). With the CDF player, anyone can freely play these simulations with the full power of the Mathematica engine. This is a great gift from Wolfram's company to the world.

I have read more about Steve Jobs in the last couple of days than I have read about him in the last several years. The more I learn about this amazing person the more I realize what a tremendous loss the world has been dealt. Not only to the Apple world, but the entire world of technology hardware and software.
I completely understand the sense of loss, and it's appropriate right now.

I am not worried for the long-term. I think about one of my personal heroes, Buckminster Fuller, and the great sense of loss we had when he left us in 1983. Today, there are dozens of individuals who burn brightly with Fuller's legacy -- individuals who Dare to be Naive (http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/synergetics/intro/moral.html). Stephen Wolfram's wonderful tools for modeling and visualization are helping to fulfill on Fuller's ideas. Bucky lives, and I'm certain that Steve Jobs will live in all of us for a very very long time.

I am not aware of any other captain of industry, who has anything close to the clarity of thought and clarity of vision (both design-wise and generally) that Jobs had.
Hewlett-Packard from its early days through the mid-1970s was quite inspiring. From their earliest scientific calculators (HP-35) to the introduction of the HP-65 in the mid-1970s, HP enjoyed a kind of enthusiasm and customer loyalty rarely found in consumer electronics. You can still see echoes of that enthusiasm: the HP 16C is still a highly-prized machine by its owners.

I accidentally hit an interesting link between HP's calculators and Apple: Woz worked for HP; Woz sold his HP calculator to help raise money for the production line for the Apple I. :)

Walt Disney was a similar visionary during his age. He helped spawn the phenomenal growth in So Cal. Many Disney-fans are grateful for the wonderful influence that John Lassiter and Pixar have had on the Disney product in the last few years.
Score: 4 Votes (Like | Disagree)
OrangeSVTguy Avatar
165 months ago
I don't think you had to know him personally to understand how such an influential person he was. I'm sure he changed many lives.
Score: 4 Votes (Like | Disagree)
millertime021 Avatar
165 months ago
Amazing software influenced by an amazing person.
Score: 4 Votes (Like | Disagree)
r2shyyou Avatar
165 months ago
I wish I could've gotten to know Steve Jobs personally. Seems like an intriguing person.
Score: 4 Votes (Like | Disagree)