There is a saying that our greatest achievements often are attained by standing on the shoulders of giants. It is often hard to know who deserves the credit when each of us is surrounded by ideas that have circulated for centuries.
In How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery, author Kevin Ashton points out that “every creator inherits concepts, contexts, tools, methods, data, laws, principles and models from thousands of other people, dead and alive”.
Every creator owes a debt to those that came before. Let’s take the comment “on the shoulders of giants” as an example.
Isaac Newton is often given credit for this saying. In 1676, he wrote in a letter: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.
Newton, however, got this saying from George Herbert who wrote in 1651: “A dwarf on a giant’s shoulders sees farther of the two”.
In 1621, though, Robert Burton wrote: “A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself”.
We’re not done yet.
In 1159, John of Salisbury said: “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they”.
Finally, in 1130, Bernard of Chartres wrote: “We are like dwarfs standing upon the shoulders of giants, and so able to see more and see farther than the ancients”.
We don’t know who Bernard got the saying from.
This chain of custody is the topic of a book by Robert Merton called On the Shoulder of Giants.
How many giants are holding you up on their shoulders?