‘Everything that can be invented has been’

Who said the quote in the headline of this column, and when did they say it?

May 1st, 2008
Th Jbairstow

By Jeff Bairstow

Who said the quote in the headline of this column, and when did they say it? “Everything that can be invented has been” was reportedly a brash statement made in 1899 by the then Commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, one Charles H. Duell, who, it was claimed, felt he should retire because the flow of patent applications would shortly dry up and, consequently, the U.S. Patent Office would no longer be needed. Duell did in fact resign, but for other reasons.

The questionable quote surfaced again recently on the frontispiece page of a new historical novel that is somewhat loosely based on the turbulent life of Nikola Tesla, the brilliant Serbian electrical engineer who worked for both Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. I’ll have more to say about this book, The Invention of Everything Else: A Novel, by Samantha Hunt (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA. 2008) in a future column.

Clearly, this is one quote with “legs.” But, based on my Internet research, I doubt if Ms. Hunt took the time to check the accuracy of all her quotes.

The quote seemed so prima facie ridiculous that I was prompted to track down the birth, life, and, hopefully, the demise of this patently absurd statement. After much Googling around, I discovered that, over the course of the last century several other writers had been there before me, thus easing my path toward this prime example of an “urban legend.”

Perhaps the most thorough investigation was done by Samuel Sass, a retired company librarian for General Electric’s Transformer Division. Writing in the Spring 1989 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine devoted to debunking scientific myths and popular misconceptions, Sass described how, in 1940, a researcher (Dr. Eben Jeffrey) with the Works Projects Administration (WPA) found no evidence that any Patent Ofice Commissioner had ever resigned on the shaky grounds that there would shortly be nothing new to patent.

The WPA researcher did quote a previous U.S. Patent Office Commissioner, Henry Ellsworth, in his 1843 Annual Report to Congress. “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,” said Ellsworth. Taken out of context, that sentence might have implied an end to invention, and subsequently the need for patents.

Given that the number of U.S. patents granted yearly jumped from 435 in 1837 to 25,527 in 1899, it would appear highly unlikely that even the most dim-witted patent office commissioner would have said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Sass goes on to say that the spurious Duell “quote” refuses to die. It surfaced again in a book by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky entitled, The Experts Speak: the Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation (Pantheon, New York, NY, 1984) and again in 1985 in a series of advertisements for TRW Corp. that had the theme, “The Future Isn’t What it Used to Be.”

“It would be the height of optimism to believe that efforts to debunk this myth will cause it to disappear,” says Sass. “It’s too good a story and lends itself too readily to those who are eager to make a point and to whom facts and truth are secondary.” You can say that again, Sam.

Now, my advice to novice author Samantha Hunt is to get a good fact-checker and have him or her try to find the primary source of all the quotes in her book.

As the traditional newspaper desk editors were fond of saying to cub reporters, “You could always look it up!” Under the pressure of deadlines—and books have deadlines, too—how often do we skip the final check of an article or a report? Far too frequently, in my view!

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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