PORTLAND — Former Maine Gov. Angus King, who enlisted Apple and CEO Steve Jobs to provide laptop computers to middle school students across the state, described Jobs as the most important leader of his era, saying he’ll one day be mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

Jobs joined King in addressing students at Portland High School in June 2002 after the first Apple laptops arrived for a program that eventually distributed them to seventh- and eighth-graders in 239 public schools. Jobs touted the program as a way to get students excited about learning.

Jobs, who provided the computers and support to the state at a steep discount, said the Maine contract “was one that we decided we just couldn’t lose.”

Over the years, King kept in touch with Jobs, last corresponding with him about a decision by Auburn schools to equip kindergartners with Apple iPads.

“I believe Steve is the most important leader of our era. Politicians come and go but he actually changed the way people interact with the world, the way people see the world, the way people gain information from the world. He’ll be looked back upon as one of the most important Americans of all time, up there with Edison and Ford,” King said today via iPhone before addressing students at Hebron Academy.

Back in 2002, King said that providing laptops to all students, regardless of means, would help eliminate the so-called “digital divide” between rich and poor kids. By the fall of 2003, more than 30,000 laptops had been distributed to seventh- and eighth-graders and to 3,000 teachers in Maine.

Later, the program expanded into high schools.

King, who championed the first-in-the-nation laptop program, said Apple didn’t make any money on the program. It delivered discounted laptops, wireless networking, support and mail-in repairs for the computers.

“Steve wanted to see this happen. It had always been a dream of his to see digital device in everybody’s hands,” King said. “We were the first people to really step up and make that happen.”

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