This article is presented here with the written consent of Samuel Sass, the author, and of The Skeptical Inquirer, the publisher
From the Skeptical Inquirer, vol 13 (spring 1989) pp 310-313
A Patently False Patent Myth
Did, a patent, official really once resign because he thought nothing was left to invent? Once such myths start they take on a life of their own.
[Samuel Sass (523 Crane Ave., Pittsfield, MA 12001) was librarian of the General Electric Company's transformer division for 31 years before his retirement in 1976.]
For more than a century there has periodically appeared in print the story about an official of the U.S. Patent Office who resigned his post because he believed that all possible inventions had already been invented. Some years ago, before I retired as librarian of a General Electric Company division, I was asked by a skeptical scientist to find out what there was to this recurring tale. My research proved to be easier than I had expected. I found that this matter had been investigated as a project of the D.C. Historical Records Survey under the Works Projects Administration. The investigator, Dr. Eber Jeffery, published his findings in the July 1940 Journal of the Patent Office Society.
Jeffery found no evidence that any official or employee of the U.S. Patent Office had ever, resigned because he thought there was nothing left to invent. However, Jeffery may have found a clue to the origin of the myth. In his 1843 report to Congress, the then commissioner of the Patent Office, Henry L. Ellsworth, included the following comment: "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." As Jeffery shows, it's evident from the rest of that report that Commissioner Ellsworth was simply using a bit of rhetorical flourish to emphasize that the number of patents was growing at a great rate. Far from considering inventions at an end, he outlined areas in which he expected patent activity to increase, and it is clear that he was making plans for the future.
When Commissioner Ellsworth did resign in 1845, his letter of resignation certainly gave no indication that he was resigning because he thought there was nothing left for the Patent Office to do. He gave as his reason the pressure of private affairs, and stated, "I wish to express a willingness that others may share public favors and have an opportunity to make greater improvements." He indicated that he would have resigned earlier if it had not been for the need to rebuild after the fire of 1836, which had destroyed the Patent Office building. In any case, the letter of resignation should have put an end to any notion that his comment in the 1843 report was to be taken literally.
Unfortunately, the only words of Commissioner Ellsworth that have lived on for the past century and a half are those about the advancement of the arts taxing credulity and presaging the period when human improvement must end. For example, the December 1979 Saturday Review contained an article by Paul Dickson titled "It'll Never Fly, Orville: Two Centuries of Embarrassing Predictions." This appeared side by side with a statement Napoleon is said to have made to Robert Fulton: "What sir, you would make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her decks? I pray you excuse me. I have no time to listen to such nonsense." Poor, maligned Mr. Ellsworth!
If in the case of Commissioner Ellsworth there was at least a quotation out of context on which the "nothing left to invent" story was based, a more recent myth attributing a similar statement to a commissioner who served a half-century later is totally baseless. This new story surfaced in the fall of 1985, when full-page advertisements sponsored by the TRW Corporation appeared in a number of leading periodicals, including Harper and Business Week.
These ads had as their theme "The Future Isn't What It Used to Be." They contained photographs of six individuals, ranging from a baseball player to a president of the United States, who had allegedly made wrong predictions. Along with such statements as "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote," attributed to President Cleveland, and "There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom," attributed to physicist Robert Millikan, there is a prediction that was supposedly made by Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office Charles H. Duell. The words attributed to him were: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." The date given was 1899.
Since I was certain that the quotation was spurious, I wrote to the TRW advertising manager to ask its source. In response to my inquiry, I received a letter referring me to two books, although I had specifically asked for the primary and not secondary sources. The books were The Experts Speak, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, published in 1984 by Pantheon, and The Book of Facts and Fallacies, by Chris Morgan and David Langford, published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press.
When I examined these two volumes I found that the 1981 Morgan and Langford work contained Commissioner Ellsworth's sentence about the advancement of the arts taxing our credulity, although the quote was somewhat garbled. It also contained the following comment by the authors: "We suppose that at just about any period in history one can imagine, the average dimwitted official will have doubted that anything new can be produced; the attitude cropped up again in 1899, when the director of the U.S. Patent Office urged President McKinley to abolish the office, and even the post of director, since, "everything that can be invented has been invented." The authors do not give the name of the commissioner whom they call "director," but it was Charles H. Duell who held that office in 1899. They don't offer any documentation to support that alleged statement, and they would have had a tough time finding any.
It's easy enough to prove that Duell was not the "dim-witted official" so glibly, referred to. One need only examine his 1899 report, a document of only a few pages available in any depository library. Far from suggesting to the president that he'd abolish the Patent Office, Duell quotes the following from McKinley's annual message: "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 then adds, "May not our inventors hopefully look to the Fifty-sixth Congress for aid and effectual encouragement in improving the American patent system?" Surely these words are not those of some kind of idiot who believes that everything has already been invented. Other information in that report also definitely refutes any such notion. Duell presents statistics showing the growth in the number of patents from 435 in 1837 to 25,527 in 1899. In the one year between 1898 and 1899 there was an increase of about 3,000. It's hardly likely that he would expect a sudden and abrupt ending to patent applications.
The other: book cited by the advertising manager of TRW, Inc,, The Experts Speak, by Cerf and Navasky, offers a key to how myths are perpetuated. This volume, published three years after the Morgan and Langford work, contains the spurious Duell quote, "Everything that can be invented has been invented," and prints it as though it had formed part of the commissioner's 1899 report to President McKinley. However, unlike the earlier work, The Experts Speak contains source notes in the back. The source given reads as follows: "Charles H. Duell, quoted from Chris Morgan and David Langford, Facts and Fallacies (Exeter, England, Webb & Bower, 1981), p. 64." Unlikely as it is for the head of the U.S. Patent Office to have said something so silly, evidently it did not occur to Cerf and Navasky to question that statement. They simply copied it from the earlier book. One can expect that in the future there will be more such copying because it is easier than checking the facts.
The irony is that the subtitle of The Experts Speak is "The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation." One can only wonder how much more misinformation is contained in this nearly 400-page compendium. On the title page, the book is described as a "joint project of the Nation Magazine and the Institute of Expertology." Whatever this institute may be, on the theory that the Nation is a responsible publication, I wrote to Mr. Navasky, who is editor of that magazine and coauthor of the book, to ask if he could tell me where and when Commissioner Duell made the stupid statement attributed to him. I did not receive a reply.
Attached portrait of Charles Duell with caption:
"Everything that can be invented has been invented."
Charles H. Duell
Director of U.S. Patent Office, 1899