Quotations about   progress

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The test of a democracy is not the magnificence of buildings or the speed of automobiles or the efficiency of air transportation, but rather the care given to the welfare of all the people.

Helen Keller (1880-1968) American author and lecturer
“Try Democracy,” The Home Magazine, Vol. 11, # 4 (Apr 1935)
Added on 14-Sep-20 | Last updated 14-Sep-20
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Here’s to the crazy ones — the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things, they push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs (1955-2011) American computer inventor, entrepreneur
“To the Crazy Ones,” TV advertisement (1997)
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Often cited as a quotation from Steve Jobs, this was an Apple advertisement developed by Chiat/Day under the direction of Jobs after his return to the company in 1997, under the campaign "Think Different." The ad and its text was created by Chiat/Day talent like Craig Tanimoto, Rob Siltanen, and Ken Segall. (For more information on the ad's development, see Siltanen's article.)

Jobs did narrate the text at least once, but the original 1997 ad was voiced by Richard Dreyfuss.

Note: nearly all transcripts say, "But the only thing you can't do ..." while the word voiced is "About the only thing you can't do ...."
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The supreme crime of the church to-day is that everywhere and in all its operations and influences it is on the side of sloth of mind; that it banishes brains, it sanctifies stupidity, it canonizes incompetence.

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) American writer, journalist, activist, politician
The Profits of Religion, Book Two: “The Church of Good Society,” “The Canonization of Incompetence” (1917)
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MORDEN: Think about it, Captain. Look at the long history of human struggle. Six thousand years of recorded wars, bloodshed, atrocities beyond description. But look at what came out of all that. We’ve gone to the stars. Split the atom. Written sonnets. We would never have evolved this far if we hadn’t been at each other’s throats, evolving our way up inch by inch.

J. Michael (Joe) Straczynski (b. 1954) American screenwriter, producer, author [a/k/a "JMS"]
Babylon 5, 3×22 “Z’Ha’Dum” (28 Oct 1996)
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A human being is a deracinated caveman, as a caveman was a deracinated nephew of an ape. Everyone gets to be something by starting as something else — either that or he stays unevolved.

John Ciardi (1916-1986) American poet, writer, critic
In Vince Clemente, “‘A Man Is What He Does With His Attention’: A Conversation with John Ciardi,” Poesis, Vol. 7 #2 (1986)
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To believe that man’s aggressiveness or territoriality is in the nature of the beast is to mistake some men for all men, contemporary society for all possible societies, and, by a remarkable transformation, to justify what is as what needs must be; social repression becomes a response to, rather than a cause of, human violence.

Leon Eisenberg (1922-2009) American psychiatrist and medical educator
“The Human Nature of Human Nature,” Science (14 Apr 1972)
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Based on an address at Faculty of Medicine Day, McGill University Sesquicentennial Celebration, Montreal, Canada (1 Oct 1971).
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It is a measure of the Negro’s circumstance that, in America, the smallest things usually take him so very long, and that, by the time he wins them, they are no longer little things: they are miracles.

Murray Kempton (1917-1997) American journalist.
Part of Our Time: Some Ruins & Monuments of the Thirties, ch. 8 (1955)
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On the formation of the Pullman Porters union.
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He may have gone quite far in our society, but no matter how far one goes, one cannot avoid bringing oneself along.

Peter David (b. 1956) American writer
Babylon 5: Legions of Fire III – Out of the Darkness (2000)
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In the end, it is important to remember that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.

Max De Pree (b. 1924) American businessman and writer
Leadership Is an Art, “Who Owns This Place?” (1987)
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Sometimes misquoted as "by remaining who we are."
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If you said to a bunch of average people two hundred years ago “Would you be happy in a world where medical care is widely available, houses are clean, the world’s music and sights and foods can be brought into your home at small cost, travelling even 100 miles is easy, childbirth is generally not fatal to mother or child, you don’t have to die of dental abcesses and you don’t have to do what the squire tells you” they’d think you were talking about the New Jerusalem and say ‘yes’.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
(Attributed)

Usually cited to alt.fan.pratchett, but not found in the repository.
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Art — the one achievement of Man which has made the long trip up from all fours seem well advised.

James Thurber (1894-1961) American cartoonist and writer
Forum and Century (Jun 1939)

Also quoted in Clifton Fadiman, I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Certain Eminent Men and Women of Our Time (1939).
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Lead the ideas of your time and they will accompany and support you; fall behind them and they drag you along with them; oppose them and they will overwhelm you.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) French emperor, military leader
(Attributed)
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Quoted, unsourced, in Jules Bertaut, Napoleon: In His Own Words [Virilités, maximes et pensées de Napoléon Bonaparte], ch. 4 (1916) [tr. Law and Rhodes].
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Against all appearances the nature of things works for truth and right forever.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
The Conduct of Life, ch. 6 “Worship” (1860)
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Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana (1863-1952) Spanish-American poet and philosopher [Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruíz de Santayana y Borrás]
The Life of Reason or The Phases of Human Progress, Vol. 1, “Reason in Common Sense,” ch. 12 (1905-1906)
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Often given as "Those who do not remember the past ...." Quoted at the Auschwitz Holocaust Museum, via Polish, as: "The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."

Often misattributed to Winston Churchill, who paraphrased it in a Commons speech in 1948: "Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it."
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In art as in politics we must deal with people as they are, not as we wish them to be. Only by working with the real can you get closer to the ideal.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
In Her Day, Preface, “A Note to the Feminist Reader” (1976)
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Certainly it is presumptuous to say that we cannot improve, and that Man, who has only been in power for a few thousand years, will never learn to make use of his power. All I mean is that, if people continue to kill one another as they do, the world cannot get better than it is, and that, since there are more people than formerly, and their means for destroying one another superior, the world may well get worse. What is good in people — and consequently in the world — is their insistence on creation, their belief in friendship and loyalty for their own sakes; and, though Violence remains and is, indeed, the major partner in this muddled establishment, I believe that creativeness remains too, and will always assume direction when violence sleeps.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
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Taft explained that the great issue in this campaign is “creeping socialism.” Now that is the patented trademark of the special interest lobbies.

Socialism is a scare word they have hurled a every advance the people have made in the last twenty years. Socialism is what they called public power. Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm prices supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.

Harry S Truman (1884-1972) US President (1945-1953)
Speech, Syracuse, New York (10 Oct 1952)
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Added on 16-Aug-19 | Last updated 4-Sep-19
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Where men then are free to consult experience they will correct their practice, and make changes for the better. It follows, therefore, that the more free men are, the more changes they will make. In the beginning, possibly, for the worse; but most certainly in time for the better; until their knowledge enlarging by observation, and their judgment strengthening by exercise, they will find themselves in the straight, broad, fair road of improvement. Out of change, therefore, springs improvement; and the people who shall have imagined a peaceable mode of changing their institutions, hold a surety for their melioration. This surety is worth all other excellences. Better were the prospects of a people under the influence of the worst government who should hold the power of changing it, that those of a people under the best who should hold no such power.

Frances "Fanny" Wright (1795-1852) Scottish-American writer, lecturer, social reformer
Independence Day speech, New Harmony, Indiana (4 Jul 1828)
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The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it -– at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) American novelist, playwright, activist
“The Negro Child — His Self-Image,” speech (16 Oct 1963)
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Speech to educators, first published as "A Talk to Teachers," The Saturday Review (21 Dec 1963). The thesis above is restatated at the end in these words, more frequently quoted: "I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person."
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Every observation of history inspires a confidence that we shall not go far wrong; that things will mend.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“The Young American” (1844)
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There is, in the institutions of this country, one principle, which, had they no other excellence, would secure to them the preference over those of all other countries. I mean — and some devout patriots will start — I mean the principle of change.

I have used a word to which is attached an obnoxious meaning. Speak of change, and the world is in alarm. And yet where do we not see change? What is there in the physical world but change? And what would there be in the moral world without change?

Frances "Fanny" Wright (1795-1852) Scottish-American writer, lecturer, social reformer
Independence Day speech, New Harmony, Indiana (4 Jul 1828)
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We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.

Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) American architect, engineer
(Attributed)

Quoted in L. Steven Sieden, A Fuller View (2012).
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The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Questions (1988) [with Jason A. Schulman]
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If you attack Stupidity, you attack an entrenched interest with friends in government and every walk of public life, and you will make small progress against it.

Robertson Davies (1913-1995) Canadian author, editor, publisher
The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks (1949)
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Added on 8-Sep-17 | Last updated 8-Sep-17
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Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds, cannot change anything.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) British playwright and critic
Everybody’s Political What’s What? (1950 ed.)
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It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone — that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized — though I should not like to be put to giving names — but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
“Homo Neandertalensis,” Baltimore Evening Sun (29 Jun 1925)
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We are the highest achievement reached so far by the great constructors of evolution. We are their “latest” but certainly not their last word. The scientist must not regard anything as absolute, not even the laws of pure reason. He must remain aware of the great fact, discovered by Heraclitus, that nothing whatever really remains the same even for one moment, but that everything is perpetually changing. To regard man, the most ephemeral and rapidly evolving of all species, as the final and unsurpassable achievement of creation, especially at his present-day particularly dangerous and disagreeable stage of development, is certainly the most arrogant and dangerous of all untenable doctrines.

Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) Austrian zoologist, ethologist, ornithologist
On Aggression, ch. 12 “On the Virtue of Scientific Humility” (1963)
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There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally and basically wrong. I don’t think we have to look too far to see that. I’m sure that most of you would agree with me in making that assertion. And when we stop to analyze the cause of our world’s ills, many things come to mind. We begin to wonder if it is due to the fact that we don’t know enough. But it can’t be that. Because in terms of accumulated knowledge we know more today than men have known in any period of human history. We have the facts at our disposal. We know more about mathematics, about science, about social science, and philosophy than we’ve ever known in any period of the world’s history. So it can’t be because we don’t know enough. And then we wonder if it is due to the fact that our scientific genius lags behind. That is, if we have not made enough progress scientifically. Well then, it can’t be that. For our scientific progress over the past years has been amazing. Man through his scientific genius has been able to warp distance and place time in chains, so that today it’s possible to eat breakfast in New York City and supper in London, England. Back in about 1753 it took a letter three days to go from New York City to Washington, and today you can go from here to China in less time than that. It can’t be because man is stagnant in his scientific progress. Man’s scientific genius has been amazing. I think we have to look much deeper than that if we are to find the real cause of man’s problems and the real cause of the world’s ills today. If we are to really find it I think we will have to look in the hearts and souls of men.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
“Rediscovering Lost Values,” Sermon, Second Baptist Church, Detroit (28 Feb 1954)
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Is it progress if a cannibal uses knife and fork?

Stanislaw Lec (1909-1966) Polish aphorist, poet, satirist
Unkempt Thoughts (1962)
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The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
“Rediscovering Lost Values,” sermon, Second Baptist Church, Detroit (28 Feb 1954)
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While all other Sciences have advanced, that of Government is at a stand; little better understood; little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (9 Jul 1813)
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When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English writer, lexicographer, critic
The Rambler, #50 (25 Sep 1750)
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The exact measure of the progress of civilization is the degree in which the intelligence of the common mind has prevailed over wealth and brute force.

George Bancroft (1800-1891) American historian, statesman, education reformer
Speech, Adelphi Society, Liamstown College (Aug 1835)
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Man masters nature not by force but by understanding. This is why science has succeeded where magic failed: because it has looked for no spell to cast over nature.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
Lecture, MIT (26 Feb 1953)

Reprinted in "The Creative Mind," Sec. 4, Science and Human Values (1961).
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Comfort and habits let us be ready to forgo, but I am not ready for a creed which does not care how much it destroys the liberty and security of daily life, which uses deliberately the weapons of persecution, destruction and international strife. How can I admire a policy which finds a characteristic expression in spending millions to suborn spies in every family and group at home, and to stir up trouble abroad?

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) English economist
“A Short View of Russia” (1925)
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It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) Danish philosopher, theologian
Journals IV.A.164 (1843)

Commonly paraphrased: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."
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That which seems the height of absurdity in one generation often becomes the height of wisdom in the next.

mill-height-of-absurdity-wisdom-wist_info-quote

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) English philosopher and economist
(Attributed)
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Often cited from a quote in Adlai Stevenson, Call to Greatness (1954), but appears earlier in, e.g., National Magazine (Nov 1911). Unverified in Mills' writings.
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He that is good will infallibly become better, and he that is bad will as certainly become worse; for vice, virtue, and time are three things that never stand still.

Charles Caleb "C. C." Colton (1780-1832) English cleric, writer
Lacon: or, Many Things in Few Words, #457 (1821 ed.)
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The envious nature of men, so prompt to blame and so slow to praise, makes the discovery and introduction of any new principles and systems as dangerous as almost the exploration of unknown seas and continents.

macchiavelli-new-systems-and-discoveries-wist_info-quote

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) Italian politician, philosopher, political scientist
The Discourses on Livy, Book 1, Introduction (1517) [tr. Detmold (1882)]
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The conflict between the principle of liberty and the fact of slavery is coming gradually to an issue. Slavery has now the power, and falls into convulsions at the approach of freedom. That the fall of slavery is predetermined in the counsels of Omnipotence I cannot doubt; it is a part of the great moral improvement in the condition of man, attested by all the records of history. But the conflict will be terrible, and the progress of improvement perhaps retrograde before its final progress to consummation.

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) US President (1825-29)
Journal (11 Dec 1838)
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Yes, yes, we are taught to fly in the air like birds, and to swim in the water like the fishes; but how to live on the earth we don’t know.

Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) Russian writer [b. Alexei Maximovich Peshkov]
(Attributed)

Quoting a Russian peasant on progress; cited in Lothrop Soddard, Social Classes in Post-War Europe (1925).

Quoted later by Martin Luther King, Jr., in "The Man Who Was a Fool," Strength to Love (1963): "We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers"; he used the same phrase in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture (1964).

Variant: "Now that we have learned to fly the air like birds, swim under water like fish, we lack one thing—to learn to live on earth as human beings."

Sometimes misattributed to George Bernard Shaw. See here for more information.
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Change is not always progress. […] A fever of newness has been everywhere confused with the spirit of progress.

Henry Ford (1863-1947) American industrialist
Ford Ideals (1922)
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So give me the political economist, the sanitary reformer, the engineer; and take your saints and virgins, relics and miracles. The spinning-jenny and the railroad, Cunard’s liners and the electric telegraph, are to me, if not to you, signs that we are, on some points at least, in harmony with the universe; that there is a mighty spirit working among us, who cannot be your anarchic and destroying Devil, and therefore may be the Ordering and Creating God.

Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) English clergyman, historian, essayist, novelist (pseud. "Parson Lot")
Yeast: A Problem, ch. 5 (1848)
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If you’re walking down the right path, and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress.

Obama - willing to keep walking - wist_info quote

Barack Obama (b. 1961) American politician, US President (2009-2017)
(Attributed)
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The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion. That intellectuality is more vigorous that has attained its strength gradually. It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider — and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation — persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) Scottish-American scientist, inventor, engineer
Interview, in Orison Swett Marden, How They Succeeded, ch. 2 (1901)
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The inventor … looks upon the world and is not contented with things as they are. He wants to improve whatever he sees, he wants to benefit the world; he is haunted by an idea. The spirit of invention possesses him, seeking materialization.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) Scottish-American scientist, inventor, engineer
Speech (1891)

On a plaque at the entrance to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada.
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If we are to believe certain narrow minded people — and what else can we call them? — humanity is confined within a circle of Popilius from which there is no escape, condemned to vegetate upon this globe, never able to venture into interplanetary space! That’s not so! We are going to the moon, we shall go to the planets, we shall travel to the stars just as today we go from Liverpool to New York, easily, rapidly, surely, and the oceans of space will be crossed like the seas of the moon.

[À en croire certains esprits bornés, — c’est le qualificatif qui leur convient, — l’humanité serait renfermée dans un cercle de Popilius qu’elle ne saurait franchir, et condamnée à végéter sur ce globe sans jamais pouvoir s’élancer dans les espaces planétaires! Il n’en est rien! On va aller à la Lune, on ira aux planètes, on ira aux étoiles, comme on va aujourd’hui de Liverpool à New York, facilement, rapidement, sûrement, et l’océan atmosphérique sera bientôt traversé comme les océans de la Lune!]

Jules Verne (1828-1905) French novelist, poet, playwright
From the Earth to the Moon, ch. 19 “A Monster Meeting” (1865) [tr. Miller (1978)]
    (Source)

Alt. trans: "In spite of the opinions of certain narrow-minded people, who would shut up the human race upon this globe, as within some magic circle which it must never outstep, we shall one day travel to the moon, the planets, and the stars, with the same facility, rapidity, and certainty as we now make the voyage from Liverpool to New York!" [tr. Scribner's "Uniform Edition" (1890)]
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Capitalism is about turning luxuries into necessities.

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) American industrialist and philanthropist
(Attributed)
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In vast stretches of the earth, men awoke today in hunger. They will spend the day in unceasing toil. And as the sun goes down they will still know hunger. They will see suffering in the eyes of their children. Many despair that their labor will ever decently shelter their families or protect them against disease. So long as this is so, peace and freedom will be in danger throughout our world. For wherever free men lose hope of progress, liberty will be weakened and the seeds of conflict will be sown.

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) American general, US President (1953-61)
Speech, Tenth Colombo Plan Meeting, Seattle (10 Nov 1958)
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What was impossible yesterday is an accomplishment today — while tomorrow heralds the unbelievable.

Fansler - tomorrow - wist_info quote

Percival E. Fansler (1883-1937) American engineer, businessman, entrepreneur
Speech, First Scheduled Commercial Airline Flight, St. Petersburg, Florida (1 Jan 1914)
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My faith in the future rests squarely on the belief that man, if he doesn’t first destroy himself, will find new answers in the universe, new technologies, new disciplines, which will contribute to a vastly different and better world in the twenty-first century. Recalling what has happened in my short lifetime in the fields of communication and transportation and the life sciences, I marvel at the pessimists who tell us that we have reached the end of our productive capacity, who project a future of primarily dividing up what we now have and making do with less. To my mind the single essential element on which all discoveries will be dependent is human freedom.

Barry Goldwater (1909-1998) American politician
With No Apologies (1979)
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When I was younger, I thought I could change this world. Now I no longer think so but for emotional reasons I must keep on fighting a holding action.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
Friday [Dr. Baldwin] (1982)
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No one really starts anything new, Mrs Nemur. Everyone builds on other men’s failures. There is nothing really original in science. What each man contributes to the sum of knowledge is what counts.

Daniel F. Keyes (1927-2014) American author
Flowers for Algernon (novel) (1966)
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Human nature is at once sublime and horrible, holy and satanic. Apart from the accumulation of knowledge and experience, which are external and precarious acquisitions, there is no proof that we have changed much since the first stone age.

William Ralph Inge (1860-1954) English prelate [Dean Inge]
“Our Present Discontents,” Outspoken Essays: First Series (1919)
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If I want to stop a research program I can always do it by getting a few experts to sit in on the subject, because they know right away that it was a fool thing to try in the first place.

Charles F. Kettering (1876-1958) American inventor, engineer, researcher, businessman
(Attributed)
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