Quote Origin: They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, But the Fool Didn’t Know It, So the Fool Went Ahead and Did It

Albert Einstein? Mary O’Hara? Raymond S. Tompkins? B. P. Fullerton? E. V. Allen? Anonymous?

The Wright Flyer together with Orville and Wilbur Wright

Question for Quote Investigator: Persistent incorrect beliefs can be a major barrier to discovery and invention. A humorous adage reflects this viewpoint. Here are two versions:

(1) Everyone knew it was impossible, until a fool who didn’t know came along and did it.

(1) People said it couldn’t be done; but the fool didn’t know it, so he went ahead and did it.

This notion has been attributed to the famous physicist Albert Einstein and the popular novelist Mary O’Hara; however, I have never seen a proper citation, and I am skeptical. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Albert Einstein wrote or spoke this statement. It is not listed in the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press.1

Mary O’Hara did employ the saying in her 1941 novel “My Friend Flicka”, but the saying was already in circulation.

This saying is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. The earliest match located by QI appeared in February 1919 as a banner on the top of the front page of “The McClain County News” of Blanchard, Oklahoma. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:2

They said it couldn’t be done, but the poor fool didn’t know it, so he went ahead and did it.–Co-op

QI believes that the saying was probably already in circulation, and the original creator remains anonymous.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The following thematic precursor appeared in the humor magazine “Puck” in 1902:3

Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying: “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.

A separate QI article about the saying immediately above is available here.

In May 1919 “The Macon News” of Georgia printed an article by Raymond S. Tompkins with an instance that was particularized to people in Texas and Kansas:4

It began to look as though Marshal Foch had known something when he said it couldn’t be done. But the long boys from the Texas and Kansas prairies didn’t know it couldn’t be done, so they went ahead and did it.

In August 1919 “Better Roads and Streets” of Dayton, Ohio printed an instance referring to scientists and engineers:5

“All the scientists said that it couldn’t be done, but the darn fool engineer didn’t know this and went ahead and did it.”—“The Highwayman.”

In 1920 a periodical from Beverly, Massachusetts called “The Three Partners” printed a version containing the deliberate misspelling “damphool”:6

They said it couldn’t be done. But the damphool didn’t know it, and went ahead and did it. 

In May 1921 “The Hardtner Press” of Kansas printed a collection of miscellaneous sayings under the title “Local Quibs” including the following:7

“They said it couldn’t be done; but he, poor fool, didn’t know it, so he went ahead and did it.”

In September 1921 “The Herald and Presbyter” published a piece by Reverend B. P. Fullerton who mentioned the saying:8

I have on my desk a motto which came to me some time ago, which reads: “The fool did not know it was impossible, and went ahead and did it.”

In 1922 E. V. Allen published an article in “The Monthly Review” of the American Electro-Platers’ Society, and Allen suggested that the saying applied to his own experiences:9

A certain scientist said that a certain thing couldn’t be done; one d— fool didn’t know it couldn’t be done and went ahead and did it. I was that d— fool and I brought it to a success.

In 1923 a journalist working for the “Dayton Daily News” of Ohio asked an airplane specialist about the future of highspeed flight:10

He was asked recently if he believed an airplane, capable of making 500 miles an hour was possible. “It wouldn’t be me to say no,” he declared. “While I’m saying it, the old adage might hold true and some fool who didn’t know it couldn’t be done, would up and do it.

In 1941 Mary O’Hara published the novel “My Friend Flicka” which included a scene during which a character referred to the adage:11

“Besides,” said McLaughlin with a little grin, “anyone—even you or I—can try the impossible once. You know the saying, It couldn’t be done but the darn fool didn’t know it and went ahead and did it.”

In 2021 Simone D’Alessandro published “Creative Actions and Organizations: Towards a Reflexive Sociology of Serendipity”. He attributed the saying too Albert Einstein:12

Einstein said: “Everyone knew it was impossible until a fool who didn’t know came along and did it”. This could be, at the same time, the thought of someone who thinks he is a superman or a fool. This oscillation between polarities seems consistent with both extraordinariness and banality.

In 2022 “License To Happiness” by Magdi Bunt and Tamas Friedrich included a version of the saying attributed to Einstein:13

“Everyone knew it was impossible until a fool who didn’t know comes along and does it.”
—Albert Einstein

In conclusion, the earliest instance of this saying located by QI appeared 1919, and the creator was anonymous. The attribution to Albert Einstein is unsupported. Mary O’Hara employed the saying in 1941 after it was already in circulation.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of flying pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright with the Wright Flyer in 1903 obtained via Wikimedia Commons and U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to David Schell whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Schell told QI about the attribution to Einstein and the occurrence in Mary O’Hara’s “My Friend Flicka”.

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, (The word “impossible” appears many times, but each instance is unrelated to the target quotation), Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩︎
  2. 1919 February 28, The McClain County News, (Banner at the top of the front page), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Blanchard, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  3. 1902 December 24, Puck, Volume 52, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Published at the Puck Building, New York, Copyright Keppler and Schwarzmann, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩︎
  4. 1919 May 14, The Macon News, Rainbow Fills Up Gaps and Rushes On To Saint Mihiel; Snatches a Five-Day Rest by Raymond S. Tompkins, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Macon, Georgia. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1919 August, Better Roads and Streets, Volume 9, Number 8, (Filler item), Quote Page 265, The Highway Publishing Company, Dayton, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  6. 1920 November, The Three Partners, Volume 7, Number 5, Untitled Item, Quote Page 9, Column 1, United Shoe Machinery Athletic Association, Beverly, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  7. 1921 May 19, The Hardtner Press, Local Quibs, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Hardtner, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  8. 1921 September 28, The Herald and Presbyter, Volume 92, Number 39, From The Western Office by Rev. B. P. Fullerton, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Published by Monfort & Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  9. 1922 September, The Monthly Review, Volume 9, Number 9, One Phase of Plating Bumper Bars by Mr. E. V. Allen of E. V. Allen Company, North Chicago, Illinois, Start Page 12, Quote Page 14, Published by the American Electro-Platers’ Society, St. Louis, Missouri. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  10. 1923 October 21, Dayton Daily News, Dayton Leads All Cities In Plane Rides, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  11. 1941 Copyright, My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara, Chapter 23, Quote Page 185, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  12. 2021, Creative Actions and Organizations: Towards a Reflexive Sociology of Serendipity by Simone D’Alessandro, Chapter 4: The Circular Consequences of Creativity, Footnote 91, Quote Page 118, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. (Google Books Preview) ↩︎
  13. 2022, License To Happiness: Happiness and Success Step by Step by Magdi Bunt and Tamas Friedrich,  Section 3: How to be Successful: the Real or Perceived Obstacles, Quote Page 151, WinningXtainment LTD, UK. (Google Books Preview) ↩︎