Jeff Bezos, quiet innovator

The Amazon founder isn't only interested in free shipping and Kindle e-readers. Behind the scenes, he's working on 10,000-year clocks and orbital spacecraft.

Self-made man -- in both the business sense and the public relations one -- Richard Branson usually gets all the attention when it comes to being a high-flying, big-dreaming wealthy entrepreneur. Considering his penchant for dressing in space suits, standing in front of aircraft and long, flowing blond locks of hair, you can see how the man matches the message -- even when he's the one giving it .

But a new Wall Street Journal article demonstrates that while Branson is certainly all of these things, he's not alone in his endeavors. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos -- he of free shipping, Kindle e-readers and a laser-like stare that I've seen in person -- is using his wealth to fund similar, far-out projects, from a "10,000-year clock" to private orbital spacecraft.

Stu Woo reports:

"The reason I'm doing it is that it is a symbol of long-term thinking, and the idea of long-term responsibility," said Mr. Bezos, who has spent at least $42 million on the timekeeper. "We humans have become so technologically sophisticated that in certain ways we're dangerous to ourselves. It's going to be increasingly important over time for humanity to take a longer-term view of its future."

The clock will ring in the anniversaries of every year, decade, century and millenium; meanwhile, the spacecraft under development by his company Blue Origin intends to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The common thread? Big thinking. Like Branson and other wealthy moguls throughout history, Bezos cares to support big ideas that don't have an immediate payoff -- particularly those that align with an existing interest, such as spaceflight.

In 2010, Bezos gave a commencement address to students at Princeton University, his alma mater.

In it, he said:

Your smarts will come in handy because you will travel in a land of marvels. We humans -- plodding as we are -- will astonish ourselves. We'll invent ways to generate clean energy and a lot of it. Atom by atom, we'll assemble tiny machines that will enter cell walls and make repairs. This month comes the extraordinary but also inevitable news that we've synthesized life. In the coming years, we'll not only synthesize it, but we'll engineer it to specifications. I believe you'll even see us understand the human brain. Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Galileo, Newton -- all the curious from the ages would have wanted to be alive most of all right now. As a civilization, we will have so many gifts, just as you as individuals have so many individual gifts as you sit before me.

This coming from a self-professed "garage inventor" who developed an automatic gate closer and a solar cooker as a child. How's that for ambition?

With a hunger like that, Bezos is certainly one to watch. The difference: you'll have to look carefully, because he's not that willing to tell you himself.

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