He was the high priest of the computer age, and as the pancreatic cancer that would kill him at age 56 took its toll, he appeared ever more gaunt and ascetic in his uniform of jeans and black turtleneck at the live introductions of his latest Apple products. There was always something of the monkish seeker about Steve Jobs, from his days as a part-time student at Reed College in Oregon, through his Wanderjahr in Asia to his pursuit of perfection in the dazzling products he and his colleagues created.
His business career started where all the best Silicon Valley stories begin: with two pals fiddling with computers in a garage. While IBM and other large firms were creating huge mainframe machines, Jobs and his software-genius partner, Steve Wozniak, cooked up the first small personal computer, the Apple II. Then, thanks to a visit to Xerox’s local research lab, Jobs got a glimpse of the future: a computer with a graphical design interface, operated by a mouse. Inspired, he drove his Apple team to create a giant stride forward in digital design, the Macintosh computer. Debuting in 1984, it swept the world, and by age 25, Jobs’s net worth was $100 million. But he was a tough, abrasive, pushy manager, and after his failings as an executive led to his ouster from his own company, Jobs entered a period of exile in which he founded a new computer company, NeXT, and ran Pixar, an innovative studio that revolutionized film animation with its 1995 computer-generated hit, Toy Story.
By 1997 Apple was on the skids, a victim of executives who lacked Jobs’ vision. He returned to his former company, retooled it — and commenced the greatest comeback in business history, introducing a clutch of breakthrough products that created a new digital landscape: the iPod, the iTunes store, the iPhone, the iPad. Apple’s retail outlets became the highest-grossing stores in the world, and as of 2012, Apple was the world’s most valuable company.
Jobs was a visionary whose great genius was for design: he pushed and pushed to make the interface between computers and people elegant, simple and delightful. He always claimed his goal was to create products that were “insanely great.” Mission accomplished.
This entry is excerpted from the new TIME book The 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which profiles spiritual icons, leaders, explorers, visionaries and cultural titans throughout human history. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/100peoplebook