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.

Continue reading The Optimist Invents the Airplane and the Pessimist the Parachute

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