It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done

Nelson Mandela? Pliny the Elder? Daniel Wilson? Elbert Anderson Young? Robert H. Goddard? Robert Heinlein? Norton Juster? Paul Eldridge?

impossible14Dear Quote Investigator: Politicians, journalists, pundits, and self-help authors are fond of the following inspirational expression:

It always seems impossible, until it is done.

The words are usually attributed to the activist, statesman, and Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela, but I have not been able to find a good citation. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has not yet found this statement in a book or speech by Nelson Mandela. The earliest attribution to Mandela located by QI appeared in an Australian newspaper in 2001. Hence, the saying was linked to him for at least a dozen years before his death in 2013. Details for this citation are given further below.

Sometimes an event or achievement appears to be impossible, and only the actual occurrence of the event is enough to dispel the misconception. A statement that matched this notion was included in the encyclopedic work called “Naturalis Historia” (Natural History) which was written by Pliny the Elder who died in AD 79. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

Indeed what is there that does not appear marvellous, when it comes to our knowledge for the first time? How many things, too, are looked upon as quite impossible, until they have been actually effected?

In 1862 the book “Prehistoric Man: Researches into the Origin of Civilisation in the Old and the New World” was published, and the author, Professor Daniel Wilson, commented on the remarkable insights available through the study of the geological record. Information could be reconstructed about the nature of Earth before the appearance of mankind. The author employed the saying in the form of a rhetorical question: 3

Yet all the while, the geological record lay there open before him, awaiting God’s appointed time. What so inconceivable as the recovery of the world’s history prior to man’s creation; but, indeed is not everything impossible until it is done? and the history of man himself, though so much less inconceivable, also an impossibility until it has been accomplished?

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The remark from Pliny the Elder caught the attention of the editor John Bartlett who included it in the 1892 edition of his enduringly famous compilation of “Familiar Quotations”. 4

In 1903 “Wilshire’s Magazine” based in New York printed a speech by Elbert Anderson Young who was President of the National Credit Men’s Association. Young projected his version of a positive future and employed an instance of the saying: 5

Of course it is Utopian and impossible until it is done. A thousand things which were impossible twenty years ago are so common today as to pass without comment.

In 1908 a streamlined version of Pliny the Elder’s comment appeared in a periodical for telephone company employees called “The Pacific Telephone Magazine”: 6

How many things are looked upon as quite impossible until they have been actually effected.—Pliny.

The brilliant and visionary rocket pioneer Robert H. Goddard recognized that travel to the moon would one day be feasible, but his futuristic proposals were met by ill-informed criticisms. In 1921 he penned a response that was published in “Scientific American” titled “That Moon Rocket Proposition: Its Proponent Says a Few Words in Refutation of Some Popular Fallacies”: 7

This work is proceeding slowly because of the lack of really adequate support, although the Smithsonian Institution is doing as much as it can on a work of this kind. But although there exists the attitude that “everything is impossible until it is done,” there is nevertheless widespread interest being taken in the work. To the writer’s mind, the whole problem is one of the most fascinating in the field of applied physics that could be imagined.

In 1951 a forward-thinking scientist in a novel by SF luminary Robert A. Heinlein employed an instance of the saying: 8 9

. . . Don protested. “But that’s theoretically impossible—isn’t it?”

Dr. Jefferson brushed it aside. “Everything is theoretically impossible, until it’s done. One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.”

An entertaining quasi-counterpoint to the adage being investigated appeared in the popular 1961 children’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth”. The protagonist was sent on a formidable quest; only after he succeeded was he told about the enormous difficulties: 10

“Yes, indeed,” they repeated together; “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone—and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

In 1965 an extended version of the saying appeared in the collection “Maxims for a Modern Man” by Paul Eldridge: 11

All things are impossible until they happen, and then they become inevitable.

In 2001 a newspaper in Wollongong, Australia printed an article about a sun-powered boat which featured a sign that displayed the saying: 12

A quote by Nelson Mandela hangs in the Solar Sailor: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” It is something Dr. Dane has carried with him throughout the evolution of his solar-powered boat.

In conclusion, the quotation was attributed to Nelson Mandela by 2001. This evidence was indirect and future researchers may find a better citation. The general saying has a very long history, and versions have been employed by the naturalist Pliny the Elder, the rocket scientist Robert H. Goddard, the SF author Robert Heinlein and others.

Image Notes: Portrait of Nelson Mandela licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license; attribution: South Africa The Good News / www.sagoodnews.co.za. Illustration depicting Pliny the Elder from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Portrait of Robert H. Goddard from NASA. All three images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Nigel Rees and a person who wishes to remain anonymous; their inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. QI highly recommends the works of quotation expert Nigel Rees. See his paper books and ebooks at Amazon.)

Notes:

  1. 1855, The Natural History of Pliny, Author: Pliny the Elder, Translator: John Bostock and H. T. Riley (Late Scholar of Clare Hall, Cambridge), Volume 2, Book 7, Chapter 1: Man, Quote Page 121, Published by Henry G. Bohn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Website: Perseus Digital Library, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Library: Gregory R. Crane of Tufts University, Book Title: Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book Authors: John Bostock and H.T. Riley, Section: Book VII, Man, His Birth, His Organization, and the Invention of the Arts, Chapter 1: Man, Website description: “Perseus is a practical experiment in which we explore possibilities and challenges of digital collections in a networked world”. (Accessed perseus.tufts.edu on January 5, 2016) link
  3. 1862, Prehistoric Man: Researches into the Origin of Civilisation in the Old and the New World by Daniel Wilson (Professor of History and English Literature in University College, Toronto), Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 4: The Primeval Transition: Instinct, Quote Page 87, Published by Macmillan and Company, Cambridge and London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1892, Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature, Compiled by John Bartlett, Ninth Edition, Section: Pliny the Elder, Quote Page 718, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1903 March, Wilshire’s Magazine, Number 56, A House Divided, (Extracts from an address by Elbert Anderson Young, President of the National Credit Men’s Association; the text was provided by Daniel K. Young in a letter dated December 17, 1902), Start Page 33, Quote Page 39, Column 2, Published by United States Publication Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1908 February, The Pacific Telephone Magazine, Volume 1, Number 8, Philosophones, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Published by Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1921 February 26, Scientific American, Volume 124, Number 9, That Moon Rocket Proposition: Its Proponent Says a Few Words in Refutation of Some Popular Fallacies by R. H. Goddard (Robert H. Goddard), Start Page 166, Quote Page 166, Column 3, Scientific American Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1951 Copyright (1978 reprint), Between Planets, Robert A. Heinlein, Chapter 2: “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin”, Quote Page 23, A Del Rey Book: Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans of 1984 reprint)
  9. 2005, Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits, Edited by Gary Westfahl, Section: Impossibility, Quote Page 185, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  10. 2011, The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Annotations by Leonard S. Marcus, Quote Page 247, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Original book published in 1961) (Verified on paper)
  11. 1965, Maxims for a Modern Man by Paul Eldridge, Section: Time, Number 2457, Quote Page 282, Published by Thomas Yoseloff, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 2001 April 21, Illawarra Mercury, Sailor’s course one of success – Birds an inspiration, Author/Byline: Kelly Nicholls Quote Page 17, Wollongong, Australia. (NewsBank Access World News)