Tag Archives: Grace Hopper

Most Dangerous Phrase: We’ve Always Done It That Way

Grace Hopper? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

grace07Dear Quote Investigator: Grace Murray Hopper was a pioneering computer scientist whose work was central to the development of COBOL, one of the foundational high-level programming languages. She worked in a very fast moving technological domain where simply attempting to repeat previously successful strategies was sometimes disastrous. I am trying to determine if she crafted the following astute remark:

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the periodical “Computerworld” in 1976. An article about new laws in the U.S. concerning data processing (DP) and privacy included an interview with Grace Murray Hopper who employed an instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

On the future of data processing, Hopper said the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1976 January 26, Computerworld, Volume 10, Number 4, Privacy Laws May Usher In ‘Defensive DP’: Hopper by Esther Surden (Computerworld Staff), Quote Page 9, Column 3, Computerworld, Inc., Newton, Massachusetts, Now published by IDG Enterprise. (Google Books Full View) link

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.

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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)