One of my great joys is creating things. From games, poetry or stories, it is amazing to see something come to life out of seemingly nothing. I have been lucky enough in my career to be involved in three projects right near the start. It has been great helping them grow into products that people love. But none of these were created completely from scratch. Everything we create is by building upon what has come before. It could be the ideas, libraries, languages or tools. So many people have had a hand in what you create. Isaac Newton had a great term for this, saying:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
- Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke [1]

One thing I like about this phrase, is it's built upon the very process it uses as a metaphor. Another thing I really like is history and seeing how things connect through time. Tracing this phrase to its origin, the first recorded version of this concept is from John of Salisbury, referencing the earlier French philosopher Bernard de Chartres.

Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants, and thus we are able to see more and farther than the latter. And this is not at all because of the acuteness of our sight or the stature of our body, but because we are carried aloft and elevated by the magnitude of the giants.
- John of Salisbury, Metalogicon[2][3]

This gets the idea out there but it is pretty wordy. Looking at examples through the next few centuries, various authors had a go at putting this idea into words:

A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.
- Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy[4]

As a dwarf set upon the shoulders of a giant can see further then he.
- John Robinson, Observations Divine and Morall[5]

A child upon a giant's shoulders sees further then does the giant himself.
- Thomas Bayley, The Royal Charter [6]

A dwarf on a giants shoulder, sees further of the two.
- George Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs [7]

Who knoweth not that a dwarfe, mounted upon a giant's shoulders, looketh higher and seeth further, than the giant himself.
- John Daille, A Treatise Concerning the Right Use of the Fathers in the Decision of the Controversies that are at this Day in Religion [8]

Each of these is a unique sentence, but they are just reordering the same set of words, some times in quite clunky ways. Different authors have put their own spin on the concept, and while some are certainly easier to read, none of them have moved it anywhere new. I think the elegance of Newton's quote is that instead of using it as a straight abstract metaphor, he put himself in there so it comes out as this humble statement, downplaying his achievements. To me, this acknowledgement of how he has seen further makes it a much more profound statement.

It must have resonated with others too, because this phrase has became the standard one we know today, able to be referenced in shorthand. It became the title of numerous books such as On the Shoulders of Giants, The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy by Stephen Hawking [9]. Being the most popular one also allows it to be humorously referenced such as

"If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders" - Hal Abelson, Vortex Dynamics in Thin Films of Amorphous [10]

It can be fun to take something and put your own spin on it. This can be a great learning opportunity and allow you to express an idea in your own way. But to make real progress, it takes someone to use their vantage point to see something new and to crystalize an idea. To build the foundation that becomes the shoulders for the next generation.

  1. Newton, I., & Robert Hooke. Isaac Newton letter to Robert Hooke, 1675. ↩︎

  2. Johannes Saresberiensis, e. C. (1639). Policraticus sive de nugis Curialium et vestigiis philosophorum libri VIII; accedit huic editioni ejusdem Metalogicus (etc.). Netherlands: Maire., page 855 ↩︎

  3. Translation from Jeauneau, E. (2019). Rethinking the School of Chartres. (n.p.): University of Toronto Press, Higher Education Division., page 38 ↩︎

  4. Burton, R. (1651). Anatomy of Melancholy. United Kingdom: Crook, page 8 ↩︎

  5. ROBINSON, J. (1625). Observations Divine and Morall, page 69 ↩︎

  6. Bayly, T. (1649). The Royal Charter granted unto Kings by God himself; and collected out of his Holy Word, in both Testaments. By T. B., Dr. in Divinity i.e. Thomas Bayley. United Kingdom: (n.p.)., page 58 ↩︎

  7. Herbert, G. (1651). Outlandish Proverbs, selected by Mr. G. H erbert. United Kingdom: (n.p.)., page 4 ↩︎

  8. Daille, J. (1651). A Treatise Concerning the Right Use of the Fathers in the Decision of the Controversies that are at this Day in Religion. (n.p.): S. Martin., page 192 ↩︎

  9. On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy. (2003). Kiribati: Penguin. ↩︎

  10. Hellerqvist, M. C. (1998). Vortex Dynamics in Thin Films of Amorphous Mo77Ge23. United States: Stanford University., page 6 ↩︎

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