A Ship in Harbor Is Safe, But that Is Not What Ships Are Built For

John A. Shedd? Grace Hopper? Anonymous?

harbor01Dear Quote Investigator: On December 9, 2013 the Google Doodle honored the pioneering computer scientist and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. Here are two versions of a quotation that is often attributed to her:

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for.

This saying has also been credited to John A. Shedd. Can you tell me who said it?

Quote Investigator: In 1928 John A. Shedd released a collection of sayings titled “Salt from My Attic”, and the following popular aphorism was included:

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

This citation appeared in the important reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” edited by Fred R. Shapiro. 1

Grace Hopper also employed a version of this expression on multiple occasions. For example, in 1981 Hopper spoke an instance of the adage with “port” instead of “harbor”. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The adage above has a natural metaphorical interpretation which encourages individuals to be more adventuresome. In 1901 a literal statement was published in a Duluth, Minnesota newspaper that displayed some thematic similarities. Warships should be kept moving and should not be left in harbor according to the statement. These ships at sea face some of the greatest risks; yet, interestingly, even a ship in harbor may “rust and rot”. The concept was ascribed to Theodore Roosevelt though the wording used was not attributed to him: 2

President Roosevelt thinks that warships are not built to rust and rot in harbor. He wants them kept moving so that crews can keep in full practice at their seamanship, gunnery, etc. That sounds like hard sense.

In 1928 John A. Shedd published his book of adages, and it did attract some attention. In 1931 the columnist Ed Howe reprinted several quotations from the volume including the one under investigation. Howe’s article appeared in multiple newspapers, e.g., the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Virginia 3 and the “The San Bernardino County Sun” of California: 4

Sayings printed privately by an amateur named John A. Shedd: “When it is rose leaves all the way, we soon become drowsy; thorns are necessary to wake us…

We have strength for today’s work. If yesterday’s is added, we stagger; if we try to carry tomorrow’s, down we go ….

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

The adage continued to circulate in 1949 when it was used as a filler-item in newspapers such as the “Corona Daily Independent” of Corona, California and “The Chronicle-Telegram” of Elyria, Ohio. The connection to Shedd was maintained: 5 6

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.—J. A. Shedd.

In 1956 a newspaper in Holland, Michigan printed an instance with slightly different wording and no attribution: 7

Ships in harbor are safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

In 1965 the widely-syndicated columnist Earl Wilson printed the saying and credited Shedd: 8

REMEMBERED QUOTE: “A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd.

In 1981 Grace M. Hopper was interviewed and profiled in “The San Diego Union” of San Diego, California. She stated that a version of the saying was important in her life. The following variant used the word “port”: 9

Hopper said that to maintain the leading edge in world computer technology, the United States must rely on the unbridled enthusiasm and ideas of youth.

“A motto that has stuck with me is: ‘A ship in port is safe. But that’s not what ships were built for.'”

In 1984 an article about Hopper was published in a Greensboro, North Carolina paper when she visited the city. The story began with the following variant quotation: 10

“A ship in port is set. That’s not what ships are built for. If you’ve got a good idea, and you know it’s going to work, go ahead and do it.”

In conclusion, QI believes that John A. Shedd should be credited with the quotation he employed in the 1928 volume “Salt from My Attic”. Grace M. Hopper did use the expression, and she helped to popularize it, but she did not coin it.

Image notes: The header image is a cropped version of “Entrance to Harbor, Moonlight” by Marcus Larson, completed in 1881, from WikiArt.

Update History: On September 22, 2015 the introduction to the 1901 citation was updated. On June 29, 2017 the citation for “The San Bernardino County Sun” replaced the Kansas City citation.

(Special thanks to Gunnlaugur Þór Briem @gthb whose query motivated QI to construct this entry relatively rapidly. Thanks to Doug Torrie for an insightful comment.)

Notes:

  1. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: John A. Shedd, Page 705, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1901 December 6, Duluth News-Tribune, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Duluth, Minnesota. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1931 May 10, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Howe About: Ford and Publicity—Frederick The Great—Philosophy, Section 2, Quote Page 3, Column 4, (GNB Page 22), Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1931 May 5, The San Bernardino County Sun, Howe About Everything by Ed Howe, the Sage of Potato Hill, Quote Page 20, Column 4 and 5, San Bernardino, California. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1949 March 4, Corona Daily Independent, (Freestanding filler-item quotation), Quote Page 8, Column 4 and 5, Corona, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1949 March 5, The Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria Chronicle Telegram), (Freestanding filler-item quotation), Quote Page 3, Column 8, Elyria, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1956 January 10, Holland Evening Sentinel, (Freestanding filler-item unattributed saying), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Holland, Michigan. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1965 October 4, Aberdeen American-News (Aberdeen Daily News), Earl Wilson On Tour by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1981 February 3, San Diego Union, Officer Sees Wave of Future: Exploring the Computer Depths by Mark Sauer, (Continuation title “Navy Officer Explores Depth of Computer”), Start Page D1, Quote Page D2, Column 1, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1984 February 17, Greensboro Record, Section B: Life & Leisure, Commodore Grace Hopper – No Nonsense and All Spunk by Sheryl James, Quote Page B1, Column 1, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)