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"Everything that can be invented has been invented."
Charles H. Duell, U.S. Commissioner of Patents, in 1899.

Rumor has it...

that a Patent Office official resigned and recommended that the Patent Office be closed because he thought that everything that could possibly be invented had already been invented!

While that statement makes good fun of predictions that do not come to pass, it is none the less just a myth. Researchers have found no evidence that any official or employee of the U.S. Patent Office had ever resigned because there was nothing left to invent. A clue to the origin of the myth may be found in Patent Office Commissioner Henry Ellsworth’s 1843 report to Congress. In it he states, "The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end." But Commissioner Ellsworth was simply using a bit of rhetorical flourish to emphasize the growing number of patents as presented in the rest of the report. He even outlined specific areas in which he expected patent activity to increase in the future.

Taken out of context, such remarks take on a life of their own and are perpetuated in publication after publication whose authors, rather than check facts, copy and quote each other. For example, recent publications have attributed the "everything that has been invented..." quote to a later commissioner, Charles H. Duell, who held that office in 1899. Unlike Ellsworth, who may have been merely misquoted, there is absolutely no basis to support Duell’s alleged statement. Just the opposite is true.

Duell’s 1899 report documents an increase of about 3,000 patents over the previous year, and nearly 60 times the number granted in 1837. Further, Duell quotes President McKinley’s annual message saying, "Our future progress and prosperity depend upon our ability to equal, if not surpass, other nations in the enlargement and advance of science, industry and commerce. To invention we must turn as one of the most powerful aids to the accomplishment of such a result." Duell adds, "May not our inventors hopefully look to the Fifty-sixth Congress for aid and effectual encouragement in improving the American patent system?" These are unlikely words of someone who thinks that everything has been invented.

References:

Jeffery, Dr. Eber. Journal of the Patent Office Society. July 1940

Sass, Samuel. "A Patently False Patent Myth." Skeptical Inquirer 13 (1989): 310-312.

TO LEARN MORE

ON THE WEB:
United States Patent and Trademark Office
An Outrerach Program of the USPTO near the bottom of the page.
(URL: http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ahrpa/opa/projxl/invthink/invthink.htm)

Special thanks to Kenneth Dobyns.

Reference Sources in BOLD Type Updated June 23rd, 2000
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