"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."
- This quotation is commonly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but it is doubtful that he ever said or wrote it.
The first recorded use of the expression, or close to it, was an advertisement in 1917 that used dollars instead of apples:
You have a dollar.
I have a dollar.
Now you have my dollar.
We are no better off.
• • •
You have an idea.
I have an idea.
Now you have two ideas.
And I have two ideas.
• • •
That’s the difference.
• • •
There is another difference. A dollar does only so much work. It buys so many potatoes and no more. But an idea that fits your business may keep you in potatoes all your life. It may, incidentally, build you a palace to eat them in!
Apples were substituted in a speech in 1949 by the US Secretary of Agriculture.
Here is a recent (2011) restatement of the subject:
"If I have an idea and give the idea away it is not gone, but I still have it! This experience does not conform to the arithmetic of things.
Let us examine this experience from the point of view of exchange. If I have an apple and you have an apple and we exchange apples -- then you have an apple and I have an apple. But if I have the idea that the apple is red and you have the idea that the apple is small and we exchange ideas, then you have two ideas and I have two ideas. It is quite obvious, therefore, that the laws governing thoughts or ideas are different from the laws governing things. If I have an idea and give it away, I still have it to give again, and if I give the idea away again and again, I still have the idea left."