Tracing the Quote: Everything that can be Invented has been Invented

Charles H. Duell was the Commissioner of US patent office in 1899. Mr. Deull's most famous attributed utterance is that "everything that can be invented has been invented." Most patent attorneys have also heard that the quote is apocryphal.

In his 1989 article, Samuel Sass traced the quote back to 1981 book titled "The Book of Facts and Fallacies" by Chris Morgan and David Langford. Sass did his work well before Gore created the Internets, so I decided to take a fresh look at the research using Google. The following chart was created based on Google's electronic compilation of 12 million books. The chart shows the frequency that the phrase "everything that can be invented" shows up in the corpus, grouped by the year of publication of each book. The chart shows that Mr. Sass is largely correct in his assessment. Google has no reference to the quote prior to 1980 in its ngram database.

However, with a bit more searching, I came across an 1899 edition of Punch Magazine that had been donated to Harvard University by the Pulitzer family. In that edition, the comedy magazine offered a look at the "coming century." In colloquy, a genius asked "isn't there a clerk who can examine patents?" A boy replied "Quite unnecessary, Sir. Everything that can be invented has been invented."

I suspect that 1899 joke is the origin of the expression. Of course, there is still Ecclesiastes.

57 thoughts on “Tracing the Quote: Everything that can be Invented has been Invented

  1. 57

    Ya I still dident get paid for inventing the debit or credit card either they will have to raise the rate some more especially and into the future again if they keep paying the wrong people.

  2. 56

    Federal limits on debit card processing fees will force banks to charge customers more for services, making accounts too expensive for as many as 5 percent of customers, JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive Jamie Dimon said Friday.

    Those banks just can’t stop innovating!!!!! Promote the progress!!!!

  3. 55

    Ya ping; Whe those first theftors just take off with my invention that destroys the chain of involvement with the correct inventor so everything is likley to get done wrong from there.We have invention futures investing if you dont like gambling on I.P. of course you can probably see all that already. with investment in my company you can keep your shorts up all the time although we dont take mobbie types to unstable.

  4. 54

    what do you think how about investing or maybe you already own an opposing share.

    I already had owned shares in the future, and it looks like I will be have gotten out just in time and placed my shorts perfectly based on some future announcement. I think it was some verdict on liability from one of your inventions.

    Sorry I cannot be more specific, but the information stream from the future was closed early to prevent thefters of the time stream from locating me.

    You know how that goes.

  5. 53

    Ping; no thats george that founded north america in 1803 he went ahead into the future but I cant prove it the rest of the stuff I can nucular stuff I did all that starting as smallchild they dident build the monroe nucular plant in detroit for nothing I wanted that in my clusters.Ya ping but its a great investment worlds top by far especially in my initial start up group although a multitude of googles will spin from the parent and of course I invented everything googles got.The accounts recievable is awsom also what do you think how about investing or maybe you already own an opposing share.

  6. 52

    No, that would be MRT’s grandfather (the mysterious fifth one that disappeared form the future – no doubt kidnapped by the thefters.

    The tragedy was that this particular grandfather was just about to teach young Mikey how to type.

  7. 51

    I foresee a day when there will be a mass-conversion reactor in every home. Let’s call it “Mr Fusion”.

    Maybe MRT already invented it.

  8. 50

    but they dont call or believe such as yourself ping

    That be just downright scary – such as it is.

  9. 49

    Ya ping; I been trying I got a idea selection that includes ablolutely everything thats never been invented and I am consigning them out for free and not one customer its like now they dont even want to steal the invention either I think there egos got deflated at the concept that they cant invent anything and the pto wont accept there lies now.The thing is theres still plenty of money to be made even in recession but they dont call or believe such as yourself ping. kKeep feeding me though ping I need your critisms.

  10. 48

    Ya ping; I invented these is all new legal theories that may thread me through to settlement.No way to control whats in these monkeys heads popularity is the only control known to man.Every since edison invented the mob the systems been in there control.

  11. 47

    Of the post by Dominique Guellec , the Department of Commerce was created as the United States Department of Commerce and Labor on February 14, 1903. It would be a bit difficult to have sent a resignation In 1875 to the Commerce Secretary.

  12. 46


    Ya think I be the one that be unpopular? You be the one that failed.

    Cantcha invent a way to fix that?

  13. 45

    Sorry ping due to you and others like you in your disbelief a genetic combination such as mine will never occur and the problems and great inventions I never had the incentives or funding to create will never exist.Boy are you gonna be unpopular. Smother off or war will follow my death with the planet becoming subatomic particles at the infinity line purgatory or nothingness.

  14. 44

    This is just a stray history line, an offshoot problem from when Mikey’s grandson invents the time machine and tries to verify the theftery of his multitude of ancestors.

    Yet another problem traceable to Mikey’s screw-ups.

  15. 43

    This quote is for sure older than 1980. It is found in a book published in 1960 in France (Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwells, “le matin des magiciens” = “the morning of magicians”, no translation in English available to my knowledge). It reads as follows (p. 32, translation follows): “l’histoire n’a pas retenu son nom, cest dommage. Il était directeur du Patent Office américain et c’est lui qui sonna le branle-bas. En 1875 il envoya sa démission au secrétaire d’Etat au commerce. Pourquoi rester? disait-il en substance, il n’y a plus rien à inventer.” Translation: “history has not remembered his name, it’s a pity. He was director of the U.S. Patent Office and he sounded the reveille. In 1875 he sent his resignation to the Commerce Secretary. Why stay? he said in substance, there is nothing left to invent.” The date has become 1875 (mid-way between 1845 and 1899!), but the anecdote is exactly the same and the sentence is the same, verbatim. Unfortunately the authors give no source.

  16. 42

    david; many claim to have invented many consider noninvention to be invention. I am still trying to get uspto live inventing competitions with no sucess they will have to guarantee patent issuance immediatly for marketable though or I smell another method of rip off.

  17. 41

    “Why great heavens what would you have me invent Other people have invented almost everything already It becomes more and more difficult every day”

    From the Ibsen play “The Wild Duck” Act V

    Just another data point.

  18. 40

    “The beautiful thing about the internet is that you can find and quote talks presented by anyone!” – Benjamin Franklin.

    Even IP attorneys are subject to mis-information. We’re all aware of the Chevy NOVA story in Latin America, but please read into it a bit more. What we take to be true is often not.

  19. 39

    eccesiastes was aparantly bumping heads with my greatgrandfather the profit isiah on this one.This may have been the conception of the concept of running inventions back in time to steal the invention or nullify the application for previously existing conception to use the patent for free one of the 40 methods of frauding the inventor needing correction in patent reform.

  20. 38

    sara and from afar; Yes sara is youv found a way to examine those fee payment files that could be a valuable tool for looking up what malcom got from me without paying.May be there is an attorney in the house.

  21. 37

    The National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, England was built in the first decade of the 20th century, when all science was known. There were high-ceilinged Edwardian rooms to prove that. Shame about the quantum physics, relativity, electronics, computers, aviation and all that stuff, not to mention those strange bases A,G,C and T.

    The first chapter of Ecclesiastes ends: “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Insofar as the patent system aims to increase human knowledge, it would appear to contradict Biblical guidance. So we have all been warned!

  22. 36

    There is another cheering story I recall, just as amusing in hindsight. Something about the CEO of IBM declaring that the total market for its new-fangled “computer” product would be no more than five. Don’t disappoint me by telling me that that story is apocryphal too.

  23. 34

    Let me get this straight, if it didn’t appear according to Google before 1980 (which is probably when electronic Internet database searching first made the scene) it doesn’t exist.

    I suppose if a great jazz album that was pressed in vinyl was not digitally remastered, it doesn’t exist either.

    Modern arrogance at it’s finest. Gen X is a sad lot indeed.

  24. 33

    Dennis – I thought this was interesting, so I did a little searching of my own. It seems that you may have missed a few references, which show that the tale was around prior to 1980, but also strongly support the view that it is apocryphal.

    In its canonical form, the urban myth has a Patent Office employing resigning on the basis that there is no more work to be done. On steriods, the employee is the Director or Commissioner, who may also recommend the abolition of the entire office. A few pre-1980 examples follow:

    From Welding Engineer, Volume 39 (1954) (link here):

    One hundred and ten years ago, a Commissioner of Patents resigned from office. In handing in his resignation, he said something to this effect: “I am of no further use. Anything that can be invented has been…”

    In The Walther League messenger, Volume 34 (1925) (link here) the following is alleged to have been found in a letter in the Patent Office files, written by an employee on his resignation, and dated 1833:

    Because everything that can be invented has already been invented, it is inevitable that this office should go out of business…

    This was probably a fairly widespread version of the myth, for in the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, volume 88 (1962) (link here), the following statement appears:

    We cannot be like the patent clerk who resigned because he believed “everything that can be invented has been invented”…

    The earliest attribution to Mr Duell that I could find is in the Proceedings of the Annual Road School held at Purdue University, issue 84 (1968) (link here).

    There’s more, but I think the main points are clear: various versions of the apocryphal story predate Sass’ 1981 origins; there are examples much closer to Mr Duell’s day that place the purported origins at a significantly earlier date; and almost all examples set the date of the purported foolishness (if they specify date at all) to be many decades prior, which is a classic hallmark of an urban myth (i.e. difficulty of direct verification). This is almost certainly why attributions to Mr Duell only start to appear around 1970.

    Certainly there is scope for an updated article for the electronic age, but you might have to name Google as a coauthor! 🙂

  25. 31

    I finally got a letter stating that I am free. Although it took the word Demarcation.
    But now it says We/I can’t get into electronic pair/ fee history etc? I hope that is a momentary problem.
    Moot what a hoot.

  26. 30

    Except for michigan my concept of top new idea selective state funding guarantees hasent taken hold yet. Ide like the new govenor of florida to tackle the bull by advancing this to include a state pool of r+d and startup professionals waiting for projects. Also funding of select invention conception firms such as especially mine would provide profitable startup conceptions.Money can be repaid to the state with intrest as the companys becomes profitable. The state can break its cycle of cutting me out of the deal on my previous IP thefts and begin integrtitious operations.

  27. 28

    My biggest concern now is persons believing that because I quit being robbed that everything that can be invented has been. Other concerns are that investors are investing in picked over and no good inventions instead of calling for my conception services. R+D teams are disbamding instead of signing for new ideas. Students are not entering the field or calling for partnership projects.Individules owing money for previous projects are not paying a reasonable % of finished consumer demand products to get new projects and renew my new companys ability to file new invention. Stagnation and recession have predictably followed wile the politicans preach job creation yet wont fund it correctly.what part of nuckenfutz dont they understand.

  28. 26

    pong; I think ive got a better one If you had a patent system where everyone could lie in order to steal then everyone would since they couldent be cought.

  29. 25

    Ping: “Say a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.”

    Pong: Say the truth too often and many believe it to be a lie.

  30. 24

    Yet another examiner; well youve got that a little mixed well before I created the internets I created the burrows univac the worlds first computer 1954 or 5 in detroit. The era of ungratful murdering thieves began in 1869 with the murder of the apossel isiah and his wife my great grandfather and the theft of the estates by edison and carnegie. Edison used some of the money to hire muckers to develop patents created by grandfather delbert

  31. 22

    Cy Nical; Your right 1803 began the significant human advancement with the invention of fire.the patent system wasent invented until 1835 by isiah.

  32. 21

    It’s well known that many other civilizations were doing some serious innovation around the time Ecclesiastes was written.

    Before the existence of the American patent system? That can’t be right, can it?

  33. 20

    This Issa cat’s company, Directed Electronics, is a despicable abuser of the patent system and he has the audacity to call for an amendment of the patent whistleblower statute (35 U.S.C. sec. 292)?!?! Don’t make me laugh!!! We need more IP policing not less!!

    “It is clear to this Court that DEI’s willful
    infringement warrants both treble damages, the maximum enhancement allowed, and payment of Omega’s attorneys’ fees.”

    Case No. 6:05-cv-1113-Orl-22DAB

    Plaintiff/Counter Defendant,
    Defendants/Counter Claimants.

  34. 19

    This saying is one that enforces my theory of genetic mass conception by myself and ancestors.The individual is unable to concieve therefor he feels that everything has been invented. Ianie; ive traced my ancestory back 375000000 years with my discovery of the missing link although I dont know about previous creation involvement before this. I think there focus may be to shift the concept of gratitude from recent inventors to far previous ones I think they should try an intentionally dug cave in a northern latitude for comfort.In our patent sytem remember there is no conclusive present or past method of definativley proving inventorship and the barts like it like that even though ive conceived far more conclusive methods.

  35. 18

    I’d be careful if I were u D, that article may at any time become retroactively re-covered by copyright.

  36. 17

    “any supposed innovation is ultimately owed to the original creator of the universe for providing the raw materials.”

    See? I told you there are posters on this board that don’t think anything is patenable.

  37. 16

    It’s well known that many other civilizations were doing some serious innovation around the time Ecclesiastes was written.

    The quote, wherever and in whatever form it is found, shows nothing more than the speaker’s short-sightedness, complacency, and lack of vision. Except perhaps in Ecclesiastes, where it might be more of a statement that any supposed innovation is ultimately owed to the original creator of the universe for providing the raw materials.

    Is it not a universal standard for patentability that the claimed invention not be obvious at the time to a person of ordinary skill and knowledge? If you could point to something that could be invented but hadn’t, either you’d be the inventor ipso facto, or it would not be patentable. What value then, in saying that one can’t immediately think of anything that isn’t old or obvious?

  38. 15

    Sorry, Dennis, I did not see the last link in your post until after I posted… we are of the same mindset here.

  39. 14

    The origin of the expression is actually much older, from the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes:

    “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. “

  40. 13

    I think that you may be looking at the wrong source for the quote. My recollection is that the remark was made by the British Commissioner of Patents, a far duller and more misinformed man that Mr. Duell. I’m a bit jammed at the moment for time, so maybe another blogger on this site could track it down.

  41. 11

    To consider this statement to be a prediction is illogical. The statement merely attempts to express a tautology. Consider that the verb “can” is in present tense; it speaks not of the future. Julius Sextus Frontinus’s statement, on the other hand, is more ominous.

  42. 9

    I used to do searching in the search room in Crystal City; near the musty stacks was a set of books called the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents, or some such. I had an idle moment and looked at some of those old books just out of curiosity. I apparently was looking in the 1899 edition and found that quote, as I recall. One of you yound Turks still in DC can check it out to see if my memory is correct.

  43. 8

    This is a saying that patent thieves pull out when the master inventor quits being robed to explain why no significant new products are coming to market.I think my grandfather delbert had such a period between 1930 and 1940 and the start of war effort.At least he had sufficient money to live on but was totally disgusted with the lack of recognition for his great accomplishments.Our economy is going nowhere until we find investors and partners for my company and multitude of spinoffs.

  44. 7

    Dennis thank you so much for this bit of historical investigation! And pooh to you ungrateful grinchy commenters, demanding more from playful work.

  45. 6


    The excellent book on USPTO history entitled “Patent Office Pony” addresses this issue in Chapter 18:

    “Mr. Ellsworth wrote one sentence in the 1843 report which has been misunderstood and misquoted ever since. He wrote: “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.” The statement which is usually falsely attributed to some Commissioner or another, based upon this, is that “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” No Commissioner has ever said this, and probably no Commissioner has ever thought it. In his 1988 book, Victory without War, Richard Nixon attributed the latter statement as of 1899 to Commissioner Charles H. Duell, who also never said it.”

    link to

  46. 5

    ‘Inventions reached their limit long ago and I see no hope for further development.’

    — Julius Sextus Frontinus, prominent Roman engineer (c. 40-103 AD)

  47. 4

    I suspect that 1899 joke is the origin of the expression

    I suspect that you are wrong.

    Such comedy typically uses actual words spoken by others to draw ridicule to those others, rather than originating such words.

    For example, writing on this blog, some of the best chuckles comes from taking what others actually write and turning that phrase against them. Punch, as a satirical magazine, was apt to do the same.

    Low hanging fruit does not always bring the best research results – especially in historical contexts. The above graph merely reinforces the tendency to grab low fruit and is rather meaningless as to the actual veracity of the quote. It brings to mind the phrase “Say a lie often enough and it becomes the truth“.

    Hmmm, that seems to be a common tactic on these here threads (at least for some windmill hunting, rye field watching straw gathering jealous Sunshine folk).

  48. 2

    ^^It seems the quote has some basis according to the article you linked, but not to Charles H. Duell. However, the joke in 1899 needs to be further researched. Or should we assume that everything that can be researched has been researched regarding this quote?

  49. 1

    So, is the quote apocryphal or not? The joke may have come from, and even written because of, the real quote. Dennis, please do a bit more research. Thanks!

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