You Cannot Push On a String (Or a Rope)

John Maynard Keynes? George Patton? Samuel Harries Daddow? ‎Benjamin Bannan? Henry Smith? S. H. Monell? Thomas Brackett Reed? Thomas Alan Goldsborough? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A brilliant figure of speech has been employed to describe the performance of a futile or counter-productive task. Here are two versions:

(1) You cannot push on a string.
(2) It’s not wise to try to push a rope.

This saying has been attributed to the prominent economist John Maynard Keynes and U.S. General George S. Patton. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: John Maynard Keynes died in 1946, and the saying was attributed to him in 1970; hence, evidence for this linkage is weak. There is substantive evidence that George Patton employed this saying by 1942, but it was already in circulation.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1866 book “Coal, Iron, and Oil; Or, The Practical American Miner” by Samuel Harries Daddow and ‎Benjamin Bannan. A section discussed two strategies to achieve proper ventilation within a underground mine. One may attempt to push air into a mine or draw air out of a mine. Only the second strategy was practical. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The effect, therefore, of forcing air through a long series of intricate passages is to increase its density and friction in proportion to the pressure applied and the length of the column. To a limited extent this may be done by the expenditure of sufficient power, but this may be compared to the attempt to push a rope instead of pulling it. Whether the ordinary blowing-fan or blowing-cylinder be used, the difficulties are the same: therefore this mode must be condemned.

But when the same power is reversed, and the fan or cylinders are made to draw or suck the air instead of pushing it, the effect is reversed, and the natural or atmospheric pressure becomes an active agent instead of a repellant force . . .

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1888 this expressive analogy was applied to the domain of ventilation again by U.S. politician Henry Smith. His comments appeared in the “Congressional Record”: 2

Mr. SMITH, of Wisconsin. I have had some experience in ventilating by power, and I have found that you can not push air, but you can pull it by proper machinery. You can exhaust every particle of air from this Chamber by using the proper appliances; but the work must be done in a different way from that in which it is done now. We try here to force pure air in, but that can not be done. You can not push a rope, but you can pull it; and in like manner you can bring in pure air enough to ventilate this Chamber as well as anybody can desire.

In 1894 an article by Dr. S. H. Monell in the Philadelphian medical periodical “The Times and Register” discussed the electronic stimulation of muscles. Monell employed an analogy with a “string” instead of a “rope”: 3

You cannot push upon a string—it has no inherent power of resistance. An exhausted hand is like a limp and yielding string, and it cannot be pushed by local stimulation to renew efforts which are beyond its strength.

In 1896 Congressman Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine delivered a speech indicating that unconstrained anger was unproductive in the political domain: 4

Continuing, Mr. Reed said: Neither loud indignation nor flowery speech, neither great promises nor wild harangues will help any man out of disaster or any nation out of hard times. Temper will not even untie a show-string, and the harder you push a rope the more it will not go any whither.

In 1910 Dr. S. H. Monell used the analogy again within a book titled “High Frequency Electric Currents in Medicine and Dentistry”: 5

If the arm muscles have been thus taxed the arm drops as if paralysed and can no more be forced to further work in chronic fatigue than we can push on a string. This is the heart-breaking and wage-destroying condition that overtakes the telegraph operator when he has “writers’ cramp.”

During a 1914 meeting of the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education the figure of speech was employed by Professor C. Frank Allen: 6

Dr. Kent’s diagram implies an attempt to push the thing through whereas pulling is more effective. It is not wise to try to push a rope when you can pull it much better.

In 1935 politician Thomas Alan Goldsborough employed the saying while discussing the difficulty of stimulating the U.S. economy with Federal Reserve Chair Marriner Eccles during a Congressional hearing: 7

Governor ECCLES. Yes; I understand. Under present circumstances there is very little, if anything, that can be done.

Mr. GOLDSBOROUGH. You mean you cannot push a string.

Governor ECCLES. That is a good way to put it, one cannot push a string.

In 1942 The Washington Post” published a brief profile of General George Patton which included this excerpt: 8

His successful leadership is based upon what he calls the “spaghetti theory.” To command a force by following it into battle, he says, is like trying to push a string of spaghetti; to make progress, you’ve got to get out in front and pull.

In 1970 financial journalist Anthony Harris writing in “The Guardian” of London attributed the saying to economist John Maynard Keynes: 9

However, the present very sluggish demand for credit is throwing increasing doubt on the whole monetarist approach and recalling Keynes’s warning that “you cannot push on a string”—in other words that monetary expansion will not stimulate activity if there is no demand for credit.

In conclusion, this figure of speech was employed by Samuel Harries Daddow and ‎Benjamin Bannan in 1866. The earliest instances referred to a rope instead of a string. QI tentatively credits Daddow and Bannan although the saying may have been circulating earlier. Dr. S. H. Monell employed the string analogy by 1894. The attribution to John Maynard Keynes in 1970 occurred many years after his death and currently the supporting evidence is weak.

Image Notes: Public domain image of rope from corinna-kr at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person who asked about the attribution of this saying to Keynes. That inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Barry Popik and the volunteer editors of Wikipedia and Wikiquote for their research. The Wikipedia entry for “Pushing on a string” contained a 1910 citation. In addition, thanks to John Simpson and “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” who noted that George Patton used a version of this expression.)

Update History: On September 3, 2021 the Patton citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1866, Coal, Iron, and Oil; Or, The Practical American Miner by Samuel Harries Daddow and ‎Benjamin Bannan, Chapter 23: Scientific and Practical Mining, Section: Ventilation of Mines, Quote Page 439, Published by Benjamin Bannan, Pottsville, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1888, Congressional Record of U.S. House, The Proceedings and Debates of the Fiftieth Congress, First Session, Volume 19, Date: June 18, 1888, Quote Page 5372, Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1894 February 10, The Times and Register, Volume 27, Number 6, Electro-Therapeutics, Under the Charge of S. H. Monell MD in New York, Start Page 98, Quote Page 99, The Medical Press Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1896 August 25, New Haven Evening Register, Reed Talks at Bar Harbor, Quote Page 7, Column 1,New Haven, Connecticut. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1910, High Frequency Electric Currents in Medicine and Dentistry by S. H. Monell M.D., Chapter 3: Life Phenomena and Electricity, Quote Page 53, William R. Jenkins Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1915, Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, Proceedings of the Twenty-Second Annual Meeting Held in Princeton, New Jersey, June 23 to 26, 1914, Volume 22, Discussion of Mathematics Instruction, Comment by Professor C. Frank Allen, Start Page 130, Quote Page 144, Office of the Secretary, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1935, U.S. House of Representatives, Hearings Before the Committee On Banking and Currency, Banking Act of 1935, Date: March 18, 1935, Afternoon Session, Quote Page 377, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.(HathiTrust Full View) link
  8. 1942 November 15, The Washington Post, A.E.F. Generals Are ‘Typical Americans’ by Marshall Andrews (Post Staff Writer), Quote Page B5, Column 5, Washington D.C. (ProQuest)
  9. 1970 November 20, The Guardian, US recession could be more obstinate than anticipated by Anthony Harris, Quote Page 14, Column 2 and 3, London, England. (ProQuest)