In a too little known 1945 article, Reflections on the Law of Copyright, 45 Colum. L. Rev. 503, 511 (1945) the late Professor Zachariah Chafee argued for generous fair use privileges by noting: "The word goes ahead because each of us builds on the works of our predecessors. 'A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant can see farther than the giant himself.'" The origins of the quoted passage, and its phrasing, have been the subject of much scholarly interest, regardless of one's height. (For those interested in the correct terminology for these things, Little People of America run the Dwarfblog.).
The most extensive look at the quote (which is sometimes playfully abbreviated as OTSOG , "On the Shoulders of Giants') is by Robert K. Merton in a 1965 book called, appropriately, "On The Shoulders of Giants." A 1991 reprint, called the "Post-Italiante Edition," has a "Shandean Postscript" and a foreward by Umberto Eco. I find Merton's book annoying, a too cute idea of trying to write a investigative piece in the style of a specific over-the-top novel, Laurence Sterne's "Tristam Shandy," recently made into an "Altmanesque" movie. When it comes to detective work, I'm more of a Jack Webb, "just the facts ma'am" type. Finding the facts is not easy in Merton's work, but maybe that's the idea.
Many associate the saying with Isaac Newton "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants." Merton ascribes to Robert Burton's epic masterpiece The Anatomy of Melancholy the attribution to Didacus Stella, but my edition of Burton (the 1977 Jackson edition) has Burton tracing it to Plato's Banquet (p. 437 n.4). Wikipedia, though, has the most straightforward explanation of this messy business:
"The metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (Latin: Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident) is first recorded in the 12th century, attributed to Bernard of Chartres. It is often mistakenly attributed to Isaac Newton.
The attribution to Bernard is due to John of Salisbury , who writes in 1159 in his Metalogicon:
"Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness on sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size."
Didacus Stella took up the quote in the 16th century, and it became commonplace in the 17th century.
Robert Burton (1577-1640) in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-51) quotes Didacus Stella,
"I say with Didacus Stella, a dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself."
Later editors of Burton's misattributed the quote to Lucan. While Burton had, correctly, Didacus Stella, in luc 10, tom. ii "Didacus on the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10; volume 2", this became a reference to Lucan's Pharsalia 2.10, where nothing of the kind is found.
George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum, (1651):
"A dwarf on a giant's shoulders sees farther of the two."
Isaac Newton famously remarked in a letter to Robert Hooke, dated 5 February 1676:
"If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
The British Two Pound coin has the edge inscription STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS in commemoration of Newton.
Coleridge, The Friend (1828):
"The dwarf sees farther than the giant, when he has the giant's shoulder to mount on"
The 13th century stained glass of the south transept of the Chartres Cathedral may also be influenced by the metaphor. The tall windows under the Rose Window show four major Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel as gigantic figures, and the four New Testament evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as sitting on their shoulders. The evangelists, though smaller, "see more" than the huge prophets (they saw the Messiah about whom the prophets spoke).
The phrase also appears in the song "King of Birds" by the U.S. rock band R.E.M., which includes the lyric, "standing on the shoulders of giants / leaves me cold."
Google Scholar has adopted "stand on the shoulders of giants" as its motto."