Posted by Mystic on February 13, 2004
This website attributes the phrase to Newton's letter to Hooke in 1676: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." I don't know of an earlier use of the phrase in print, but the visual image goes back to the 13th century. In the stained glass of the south transept of the Chartres Cathedral, the tall windows under the Rose Window show the four major prophets of the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) as gigantic figures, and the four New Testament evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as ordinary size folks sitting on their shoulders. The evangelists, though smaller, "see more" than the huge prophets (they saw the Messiah about whom the prophets spoke). I have heard it suggested more than once that Newton borrowed the image from Chartres.