[Ads-l] Anecdote Origin: Everything That Can Be Invented Has Been Invented

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jun 24 03:55:53 UTC 2023

According to a popular legend the Commissioner of the U.S. Patent
Office wanted to shut down the organization in the nineteenth century.
He supposedly proclaimed: Everything that can be invented has been

The two primary candidates for the identity of the commissioner are
Henry L. Ellsworth and Charles H. Duell. Many researchers have
examined this extraordinary tale, and no significant supporting
evidence has been located.

Here are links to the new QI article:
Full https://quoteinvestigator.medium.com/274d17ab0cf0
Abbrev https://quoteinvestigator.com/2023/06/23/invented/

Acknowledgements: Thanks to previous researchers including Albert A.
Hopkins, Ebner Jeffrey, Samuel Sass, David P. Mikkelson, Ralph Keyes,
Fred R. Shapiro, and Barry Popik.

The earliest strong match for this legend that I've located appeared
in the New York journal "The Electrician" in 1883. The individual who
resigned was described as a principal examiner at the Patent Office
and not the commissioner:

[ref] 1883 December, The Electrician, Volume 2, Number 12, Section:
1883, Start Page 372, Quote Page 374, Williams & Company, New York.
(Google Books Full View) link [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
About forty years ago, one of the principal examiners in the United
States patent office, came to the mature decision that the work of the
patent department must soon come to an end, because the inventive
power of the human mind had reached its limit, and that there would be
no further demand for new inventions. So, like a prudent man, he
resigned, and engaged in portrait painting, which promised to be a
good business to the end of time while vanity and funds kept company
with humanity.

The marvelous growth of the American patent system is not merely the
result of wise legislation, but an indication of a national trait
which is doubtless the evolution of the economies rendered necessary
by the privations of the early settlers of our country.
[End excerpt]

The time period referenced above was circa 1843. The delay of forty
years and the lack of details reduces the credibility of this story.
Note, Henry L. Ellsworth, the Commissioner in 1843, was not a portrait

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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