Behold the Turtle. He Makes Progress Only When His Neck Is Out

James B. Conant? Atomic Scientist? Anonymous Cartoonist? Leslie Groves? G. B. Carter? P. C. Keith?

Dear Quote Investigator: Making headway in life requires taking significant risks. This thought has been presented with a homespun aquatic analogy. Here are three versions:

  • Behold the turtle! He makes progress only when his neck is out.
  • Behold the turtle. He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out.
  • Behold the turtle. He must stick his neck out if he’s ever to get anywhere.

This saying has been credited to James B. Conant, a chemist who was the President of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: James B. Conant did employ this motto during a speech in 1949, but he did not take credit; instead, he attributed the expression to unnamed atomic scientists.

Evidence in 1945 indicates that the saying was circulating amongst the scientists and administrators of the Manhattan Project which produced the first nuclear weapons. The program began in 1942 and was disbanded in 1947.

On October 13, 1945 “Collier’s Weekly” published a piece about Major General Leslie R. Groves who directed the Manhattan Project. The single word “Manhattan” was used in the article as a synecdoche for the project. The article claimed that the adage appeared as a caption of a picture that was affixed to the wall of an office that was used by participants in the project. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

On the wall of one of Manhattan’s offices in Washington is a drawing of a turtle, head strained forward and trying hard to get up speed. Beneath the drawing are the words: “Behold the turtle! He makes progress only when his neck is out.” That is one of several reminders in Manhattan’s Washington offices that everyone from Groves down was expected to keep his neck out regardless of the consequences.

The article does not reveal the identity of the creator of the picture. So the ascription remains anonymous. The originator appears to have been a member of the Manhattan Project. A few years later James B. Conant helped to popularize the expression.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Four days before the publication of the “Collier’s Weekly” article, a column appeared in a Decatur, Illinois newspaper that contained thematic matches in two passages. The columnist was only identified by the initials L. C. T., and QI believes that the picture caption described in “Collier’s Weekly” existed before this column was written: 2

Every time a turtle moves he sticks his neck out. When his neck isn’t out he isn’t going anywhere . . .

The man, like the turtle, who never “sticks his neck out,” may live long years. May even live a quiet and peaceful life, but he most certainly isn’t going to get anywhere.

In December 1945 “The Saturday Evening Post” published “Frontier Life Among the Atom Splitters” by Theodore Rockwell III which described Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town which was built during the development of the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. Rockwell described the pride he felt for the town and its newly assembled residents. He believed that that cartoon adage was crafted by an unnamed project engineer: 3

And above all, you know that all of them, including the Army officers, are top-flight scientists, and are worthy of your respect and support. You are happy to know that the cartoon of the turtle with the caption, “Behold the turtle; he makes progress only when his neck is out,” which has been circulated all over the country, originated with your area engineer.

In 1946 an article from the United Press news service quoted Captain G. B. Carter, director of the U.S. naval reserve in the New England area: 4

“Behold the turtle—he makes progress only when his neck is out. I say, let’s put ours out too.”

In 1947 the book “The Technique Of Getting Things Done” by Donald A. Laird and Eleanor C. Laird included a slightly different instance of the saying: 5

One of the key officers in the atomic-bomb project had an illustrated motto on his office wall. It showed a turtle lumbering along as rapidly as it could. And beneath the picture was this admonition, “Behold the turtle! He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”

In September 1947 “The Saturday Evening Post” printed an article about an innovative chemical industrial process for liquid hydrocarbons. A scientist who was working on the process had placed the turtle cartoon on his office wall: 6

One man who grasped the portent of the Fischer-Tropsch reaction and the Linde-Fraenkl process was P. C. Keith, president of Hydrocarbon Research, Inc. Keith, forty-seven this September, is a chunky Texan transplanted to New York.

In his office on lower Broadway he has a cartoon of a turtle hurrying down a road. The legend under it says: BEHOLD THE TURTLE! HE MAKES PROGRESS ONLY WHEN HIS NECK IS OUT. Engineering-wise, Keith has his neck out a good part of the time. As a credit to his daring thinking, it should be noted that it hasn’t been whacked off yet.

In December 1947 the “Honolulu Star-Bulletin” of Hawaii reported that the Honolulu Gas Company gave an award to a plant superintendent. The award was dubbed the Order of the Turtle medal, and the recipient was inducted into a new humorous secret society that was inspired by the adage: 7

“Behold the turtle! He makes progress only when his neck is out!”
This motto has given birth to a new “secret society,” a “society” which now has a total membership of one.

In 1948 the saying continued to circulate. A concise instance appeared within an advertisement for an automotive service company in Monroeville, Alabama: 8

A TURTLE MAKES PROGRESS ONLY WHEN HIS NECK IS OUT!

In 1949 “The Boston Globe” reported that James B. Conant spoke at a conference celebrating the 75th anniversary of Wellesley College, and he mentioned the adage: 9

“Behold the turtle! He only makes progress when his neck is out!”
That was one of the watchwords of atomic scientists during the war, President James Bryant Conant of Harvard said tonight before more than 2000 Wellesley College students, faculty and guests in Alumnae Hall.

In 1949 “The Saturday Evening Post” also noted that Conant employed the saying while disclaiming credit: 10

In addition to his university career, Conant is assuming an ever more important role as a public figure in his own right. In this he seems to be guided by the motto of one of the scientific war-project staffs, which he was fond of quoting: “Behold the turtle: be makes progress only when his neck is out.”

In 1953 Dr. Clyde B. Moore, president of the Board of Education handed out diplomas to students at Ithaca High School in New York, and he mentioned the saying: 11

He advised the graduates to follow the motto hanging in the office of James Bryant Conant, “Behold the turtle–he must stick his neck out if he’s ever to get anywhere”; to remember that courtesy is the best currency everywhere, and always to do the hard thing first.

In 1964 a compilation of quotations titled “Distilled Wisdom” ascribed the words directly to Conant: 12

BEHOLD the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.
—JAMES CONANT

In 1978 “Speaker’s Treasury of Anecdotes About the Famous” by James C. Humes presented a story containing another variant: 13

When James B. Conant was president of Harvard University, he kept among other objects on his desk a little model of a turtle, under which was the inscription “Consider the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”

In conclusion, the saying was first described in 1945 when it appeared as a humorous caption below the picture of a turtle. Apparently, it was crafted by a scientist, engineer, or manager working on the Manhattan Project. QI does not know the name of this individual, and it is even possible that adage existed before the project. James B. Conant used the expression in a speech in 1949, but he credited unnamed atomic scientists.

Image Notes: Illustration of a turtle from the 1887 book “Animal Life: In The Sea and On The Land” by Sarah Cooper. Image has been cropped, resized, and retouched.

(Great thanks to Schuyler W. Huck whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1945 October 13, Collier’s Weekly, The Man Who Made Manhattan by Robert de Vore, Start Page 12, Quote Page 13, Column 1, The Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, Springfield, Ohio. (Unz)
  2. 1945 October 9, The Decatur Daily Review, About Town by L. C. T., Quote Page 4, Column 4, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1945 December 1, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 218, Issue 22, Frontier Life Among the Atom Splitters by Theodore Rockwell III, Start Page 28, Quote Page 45 and 46, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (EBSCO MasterFILE Premier)
  4. 1946 April 4, Quincy Patriot Ledger, ‘Submariners’ Finally Talk About War Role (UP News Service), Start Page 1, Quote Page 11, Column 8, Quincy, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1947 Copyright, The Technique Of Getting Things Done by Dr. Donald A. Laird and Eleanor C. Laird, Chapter 19: Take on more work, Quote Page 286, (Eleventh Printing). McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1947 September 20, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 220, Issue 12, The Oxygen Age is Just Ahead by J. D. Ratcliff, Start Page 28, Quote Page 28 and 68, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (EBSCO MasterFILE Premier)
  7. 1947 December 29, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gas Company Lauds Originator of Saving Device, Quote Page 17, Column 5, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1948 December 16, The Monroe Journal, (Advertisement for Steve Powell’s Service Store), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Monroeville, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1949 March 17, The Boston Globe, ‘Stick Neck Out’ to Advance Conant Advises at Wellesley by Frances Burns, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1949 April 30, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 221, Issue 44, Harvard’s Prize Kibitzer by Kermit Roosevelt, Start Page 34, Quote Page 142, Column 3, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (EBSCO MasterFILE Premier)
  11. 1953 June 24, The Ithaca Journal, Seniors Urged To Make Ideals Work, Quote Page 5, Column 1,Ithaca, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1964, Distilled Wisdom, Compiled and Edited by Alfred Armand Montapert, Topic: Risk, Quote Page 298, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1985 (1978 Copyright), Speaker’s Treasury of Anecdotes About the Famous by James C. Humes, Topic: Courage, Quote Page 71, Perennial Library: Harper & Row, New York; Barnes & Noble edition. (Verified with scans)