''THE FOLLY of counting on the tech whiz kid'' : The Great Inventor himself, Thomas Edison, holder of over 1,000 patents, cannily cultivated an eccentric-genius reputation.

At the peak of his fame in the 1870s and 1880s, Edison wore rumpled suits and played pranks using dangerous chemicals on co-workers. Admirers pointed to these quirks as further signs of Edison's brilliance.

And while Edison had detractors, he was never as controversial as the railroad barons, steel kings and financiers whose sharp-elbowed and sometimes fraudulent dealings drove the boom-and-bust Gilded Age economy.

The whiz-kid myth lay largely dormant until the 1970s, when the buttoned up business type was under siege and once unassailable American brands were battered by oil shocks, stagflation and foreign competition.

Enter Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Gates of Microsoft : impossibly young, tousle-haired, looking nothing like business executives. A venture capitalist who visited Apple's first headquarters - in Mr. Jobs's parents suburban garage - quipped that the wispy - bearded entrepreneur and his business partner, Steve Wozniak, looked like ''renegades from the human race''. 

Freckled and slight, Mr. Gates looked more like a teenager and could behave that way as well. '' At times during an interview he slumped so far in his chair as to be almost prone,'' a Seattle Times reporter wrote in 1982. Microsoft's co-founder, Paul Allen, was ''a large, heavily bearded, mild-mannered man who wore a rumpled corduroy sports jacket.''

To become a tech millionaire, it seems, you need to avoid using an iron.

Disheveled, young and exceedingly brainy, Sam Bankman-Fried perfectly fit the role of a Silicon Valley in the making. Mr. Bankman-Fried, the 30-year-old founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, leaned into the Silicon Valley stereotype and then some, playing video games while pitching investors and wearing a T-shirt and shorts onstage with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Blue-chip investors fell for his persona, and Mr. Bankman-Fried profited greatly, with his estimated net worth reaching over $26 billion at one point.

THAT net worth is now close to ZERO.

In last week's sudden collapse of FTX - which nine months ago was the star of a Larry David Super Bowl ad, billions evaporated as revelations emerged of questionable transfers between FTX and Alameda Research, Mr. Bankman-Fried's trading company. Law enforcement is now investigating, which could lead to criminal charges.

We've seen this movie before : A casually attired whiz kid emerging from seemingly nowhere is proclaimed both savant and savior, and takes the world by storm.

Growing concern about Big Tech's power and intense criticism of onetime wunderkinds like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos set the stage perfectly for a figure like Mr. Bankman Fried. 

Amid power-hungry moguls and crypto hustlers, here was a whiteknight superhero in the perfect costume, championing philanthropy and pledging to make the world a better place - for real, this time.

But even Mr. Bankman-Fried's collapse probably won't kill the whiz-kid archetype. This all American notion has fueled some spectacular meltdowns but also scored big wins.

The willingness of U.S. investors and customers to take bets on the young, untested and brainy has delivered world-transforming innovations and companies - a computer on every desk, a smartphone in every hand.

But the whiz-kid fixation also reflects a less healthy societal tendency to overstate the importance of an individual ''genius'' and gloss over other things critical to any whiz kid's success - especially connections, timing and luck.

It also devalues experience and maturity. We invest so much in the ideal that it excludes those who don't fit the part and places too much faith in those who do.

Silicon Valley's whiz kids owe their mythology to America's very beginning. Ben Franklin, who conducted electrical experiments in lightning storms in the 1750s, shocked the bewigged and bejeweled French court in the 1770s by arriving in a homespun coat and a frontiersman's fur cap.

Thomas Jefferson, Virginia planter and perpetually tinkering inventor, padded around the White House wearing the early 1800s version of work-from-home sweatpants.

Their getups deliberately sent a message to their fellow citizens and to European rulers : Americans were democratic, humble and uninterested in dressing to show off their wealth. They were too busy working and inventing to bother.

The Essay continues. The World Students Society thanks author Margaret O'Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington and the author of ''The Code : Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America."


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