The Optimist Invents the Airplane and the Pessimist the Parachute

George Bernard Shaw? Gladys Bronwyn Stern? W. H. H. MacKellar? Gil Stern? Mack McGinnis?

Dear Quote Investigator: An entertaining quip contrasts the attitudes of the dreamer and the worrier:

Optimists invent airplanes; pessimists invent parachutes.

This saying has been attributed to Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and English author Gladys Bronwyn Stern. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in a short piece published in the May 1939 issue of “The Rotarian” credited to W. H. H. MacKellar of Peekskill, New York who was described as an Honorary Rotarian. Rotary International is a voluntary nonprofit service organization.

MacKellar contrasted optimism and pessimism by presenting examples of inventions together with later improvements. He said that optimism led to the invention of the steam boiler, but explosions led pessimism to add safety valves. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Optimism laid down the railroad, but pessimism made it practicable with the air brake and the block-signal system. Optimism designed a ship to sail daringly into the skies—and fall perhaps at times. So pessimism designed the parachute.

Currently, MacKellar is the leading candidate for originator of this notion although his expression was somewhat wordy. The first attributions to other people only occurred many years afterwards.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The next match appeared in the “Chicago Tribune” of Illinois on September 1, 1967 within the long-running column called “A Line O’ Type Or Two”: 2

Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.
Gil Stern

Gil Stern was a humorist who supplied jokes to several columnists. The emergence of later attributions may have been facilitated by the confusion of similar names. For example, the names Gil Stern and Gladys Bronwyn Stern share a last name and an initial. Also, the names Gladys Bronwyn Stern and George Bernard Shaw share the initials G.B.

The version attributed to Gil Stern subsequently appeared without attribution in several other newspapers in 1967 such as “The Bridgeport Post” of Bridgeport, Connecticut 3 and the “Wisconsin State Journal” of Madison, Wisconsin. 4

In 1971 a newspaper in Plattsmouth, Nebraska credited a single sentence of the quotation to Gil Stern: 5

Who Said It?
The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute. —Gil Stern

In 1972 a newspaper in Ithaca, New York printed a concise version without attribution: 6

Optimists invent airplanes; pessimists invent parachutes.

In 1975 the popular columnist Earl Wilson attributed the joke to another individual: 7

REMEMBERED QUOTE:
“The optimist and the pessimist both contribute to society. The optimist invents the airplane, the pessimist invents the parachute.” — Mack McGinnis.

In 1994 “The Penguin Dictionary of Jokes” published a clumsy variant: 8

What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? An optimist invented the aeroplane; a pessimist invented the seat belts.

In 1997 the attachment to Gil Stern was not forgotten. The “Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes” printed this entry: 9

Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.
—GIL STERN

In 2007 “Women Know Everything!: 3,241 Quips, Quotes & Brilliant Remarks” compiled by Karen Weekes published an entry that attributed the joke to yet another individual: 10

Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.
—GLADYS BRONWYN STERN (1890–1973) • ENGLISH WRITER

In July 2007 the syndicated columnist Jeanne Phillips shared “A Thought for the Day” which ascribed the quip to “G.B. Stern”: 11

Every one of us has something to offer. In the words of G.B. Stern: “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.”

In 2015 an article in “The Jerusalem Post” credited George Bernard Shaw: 12

“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society,” noted George Bernard Shaw. “The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.”

In conclusion, W. H. H. MacKellar is the most likely originator of this expression based on the 1939 citation in “The Rotarian”. Gil Stern popularized a version beginning in 1967. Other attributions have only weak support.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a Garnerin parachute which appeared in the eleventh edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1911.

(Great thanks to Stephen Bridge whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Bridge pointed out that confusion may have been caused by similar names. Many thanks to Pete Morris who located the crucial 1939 citation. Special thanks to researcher Barry Popik who posted a webpage on this topic located here. Popik’s first citation was dated September 7, 1967. The citation provided no attribution. Popik also located helpful citations with attributions to Mack McGinnis, Gladys Bronwyn Stern, and Gil Stern.)

Update History: On May 29, 2021 the 1939 citation was added, some text was rewritten, and the conclusion was updated.

Notes:

  1. May 1939, The Rotarian, Volume 54, Number 5, Section: What They’re Saying, Optimism Versus Pessimism by W. H. H. MacKellar of Peekskill, New York (Honorary Rotarian), Quote Page 53, Column 1, Rotary International, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1967 September 1, Chicago Tribune, A Line O’ Type Or Two, Quote Page 16, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1967 September 25, The Bridgeport Post, (Filler item), Quote Page 22, Column 2, Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1967 December 21, Wisconsin State Journal, Jest for Fun, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Madison, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1971 March 1, The Plattsmouth Journal, Who Said It?, Quote Page 4, Column 8, Plattsmouth, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1972 November 23, The Ithaca Journal, (Filler item at top of page), Quote Page D28, Column 2, Ithaca, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1975 June 24, The News and Observer, Woody’s on His Toes in Sneakers by Earl Wilson (Field Newspaper Syndicate), Quote Page 9, Column 4, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1994, The Penguin Dictionary of Jokes, Wisecracks, Quips, and Quotes, Compiled by Fred Metcalf, Topic: Optimism and pessimism, Quote Page 160, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1997, Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes: Wit and Wisdom for All Occasions, Section: our Better Side, Quote Page 69, Published by Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  10. 2007 Copyright, Women Know Everything!: 3,241 Quips, Quotes & Brilliant Remarks by Karen Weekes, Section: Attitude, Quote Page 41, Quirk Books, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans)
  11. 2007 July 8, Battle Creek Enquirer, Dear Abby: Couple shouldn’t feel guilty for career move by Jeanne Phillips, Quote Page 2C, Column 2, Battle Creek, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  12. Website: The Jerusalem Post, Article title: In My Own Write: Positively negative, Article author: Judy Montagu, Date on website: November 3, 2015, Website description: Israeli English newspaper based in Jerusalem. (Accessed jpost.com on May 26, 2021) link