Anecdote Origin: Everything That Can Be Invented Has Been Invented

Henry L. Ellsworth? Charles H. Duell? Roswell Park? Royal S. Copeland? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator®
15 min readJun 24


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Question for Quote Investigator: 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 invented.

The two primary candidates for the identity of the commissioner are Henry L. Ellsworth and Charles H. Duell. Yet, I have never seen a substantive citation, and I am skeptical. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Many researchers have examined this extraordinary tale, and no significant supporting evidence has been located.

Henry L. Ellsworth was the first Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office. He submitted a report to the U.S. Congress in February 1844 summarizing the activities of the office in 1843. The report proudly described recent technological advances while highlighting the inventiveness of U.S. citizens. Yet, the report also contained the following statement which might have been the seed for this legend. Boldface added to excerpts by QI

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.

Ellsworth’s report commented on the rapid and dazzling progress in industry, agriculture, and telecommunications. QI believes that Ellsworth was not literally suggesting an end to new inventions. Instead, he was employing a rhetorical technique of exaggeration. Nevertheless, some readers may have interpreted the comment literally. Ellsworth did leave his position in April 1845, but his letter of resignation indicated a desire to return to private life. He said nothing about shutting down the Patent Office.²

The earliest strong match for this legend located by QI 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:³

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.

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 was not a portrait painter. Based on the data collected during this investigation QI believes that this tale with manifold versions is apocryphal.

Presented below are a chronological series of additional selected citations which outline the schema of the legend.

In March 1898 the “Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office” printed a thematically related passage about the inventions which were displayed more than two decades earlier during the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia. However, the point of the passage was to emphasize the growth in the number of inventions:⁴

It was believed by many that the inventions there exhibited represented the highest development possible, that there was no further room for improvement in many of the arts at least. Yet the effect of this exposition was not, as might have been expected, to discourage invention and to convince inventors that nothing more remained to be done, that the field of invention was exhausted, but to largely stimulate invention.

For three years after this exposition the number of applications for patent received was less each year by fully one thousand than in 1876; but in 1880 the number was nearly two thousand more; in 1881 nearly five thousand more.

In 1899 the London humor magazine “Punch” printed a pertinent fictional piece titled “The Coming Century” with two characters: an inventive genius and a young office worker:⁵

Genius. Isn’t there a clerk who can examine patents.

Boy. Quite unnecessary, Sir. Everything that can be invented has been invented.

Genius. Well, I want to leave a novel, a picture, and an idea.

Boy. You must be rather old-fashioned, Sir. All sorts of work is done, nowadays, by mental photography.

The anecdote published in 1883 was not forgotten. It was repeated in 1900 during an address delivered by prominent surgeon Roswell Park to graduating students at the Kentucky School of Medicine:⁶

About sixty years ago one of the principal examiners of 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 nearly reached its limit, and there would be no further opportunity for new inventions. So, like a prudent man, he resigned and engaged in portrait painting, which promised to be a remunerative business until human vanity and money parted company — at the end of time. Why, sixty years ago our proudest achievements of to-day were scarcely dreamed of.

Charles H. Duell was the Commissioner of the Patent Office between 1898 and 1901. Many years afterward he was named as the creator of the quotation under examination; however, he held the opposite viewpoint. In 1901 a widely reprinted newspaper article presented the following commentary from Duell:⁷

“In my opinion all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might have my life over again to see the new wonders which are at the threshold.”

In July 1911 “The Sun” newspaper of New York suggested that the Commissioner of Patents in 1845 believed that human ingenuity had been depleted. QI has not yet found the passage below that was supposedly written in 1845:⁸

With the first half of the nineteenth century that far famed “Yankee ingenuity” was developed to such an extent that in 1845 there were more than six hundred patents issued. The Commissioner of Patents for that year thought that everything inventable had about been discovered, for in his report he uses the following language:

There have been 637 patents issued from this office within the past twelve months, twenty-seven more than were issued the previous year. There have been issued since the inauguration of the patent bureau more than fifteen thousand patents and it may with truth be said that within a very short time human ingenuity will have reached its limit.

In August 1911 the piece in “The Sun” was reprinted in the “Michigan Manufacturer” of Detroit, Michigan.⁹ Also, in September 1911 the piece was reprinted “The American Bottler” of New York.¹⁰

In 1912 “The Washington Post” of Washington D.C. published a similar story with a slightly different date of 1847. The newspaper also claimed that many patent clerks had resigned:¹¹

In the year 1847 the total number of patents issued up to that time was about 14,000. This number seemed so enormous that the commissioner of patents was moved to state in his annual report that there was no doubt but that “within a very few years the limits of human ingenuity will have been reached.”

So strong was this feeling that many clerks in the patent office service resigned, feeling certain that they would shortly be “out of a job.” Yet, at that time there was no telephone or telegraph; no automobile or bicycle, or aeroplane or wireless, and people walked 10 miles to get a sight of a railroad train.

And last fall, threescore and three years after the prophecy of the patent commissioner, the United States issued its millionth patent.

In October 1915 “Scientific American” magazine published a piece which specified the date of 1833 for an anecdote about a retiring patent examiner:¹²

Someone poring over the old files in the United States Patent Office at Washington the other day found a letter written in 1833 that illustrates the limitations of the human imagination.

It was from an old employee of the Patent Office, offering his resignation to the head of the department. His reason was that as everything inventable had been invented the Patent Office would soon be discontinued and there would be no further need of his services or the services of any of his fellow clerks. He, therefore, decided to leave before the blow fell.

The story from “Scientific American” was repeated in other publications such as “Mutual Underwriter” of Rochester, New York in November 1915.¹³

In April 1920 a short version of the tale appeared in “The American Magazine” of Springfield, Ohio:¹⁴

In 1833 a clerk in the patent office resigned, giving as his reason the belief that everything that possibly could be invented had already been registered under patents, and that the office must soon go out of business. In 1833 — think of it!

In May 1920 a religious publication “The Expositor” published a sermon which included an instance of the tale about a letter discovered in the patent office:¹⁵

One day not long ago a letter was found in the office of this building which bore the date, 1833. The letter read something like this:

“Dear Sir: Because everything that can be invented has already been invented, it is inevitable that this office shall soon go out of business. Inasmuch as I will soon lose my position,

I hereby resign to look for work elsewhere.”
“Yours truly,

What a fool that young man was! There is always something new to be discovered, something great to be done, some good to be achieved. He lacked imagination.

In July 1920 the journal “Public Libraries” of Chicago, Illinois published the following brief version of the anecdote:¹⁶

The story is told of the clerk in the patent office at Washington who resigned from his position. When questioned as to the reason he replied that in his estimation everything possible had been invented and so he had decided to resign before being forced to by reason of the closing of the office.

In August 1922 an instance of the tale specified a date of 1830:¹⁷

It is related that in 1830 a clerk working in the Patent Office in Washington resigned because everything worthwhile had already been invented and he did not believe there would be sufficient work to justify his wages.

In May 1923 U.S. Senator Royal S. Copeland delivered an address at North Carolina State College in Raleigh, North Carolina. He suggested that the Commissioner of the Patent Office wanted to shut it down circa 1873:¹⁸

“Fifty years ago the commissioner of patents appeared before Congress and gravely proposed that the bureau of patents be abolished. He said there was no need to continue it longer because everything that could possibly be invented had already been patented!

“It makes us smile to think of the smugness of this official. Think of what has been invented since he made his grave proposal! There are the telephone, the electric light, the X-ray, the radio, the automobile, the tractor, and a thousand and one devices making for the happiness and convenience of the human family”

In November 1923 the “Hardware Dealers’ Magazine” of New York printed an instance with a date of 1864:¹⁹

Back about 1864, when the goatee and the bustle were the last word in personal artistry and private pyrotechnics, a clerk in the Patent Office at Washington resigned because, as he put it, “Everything which could possibly be invented has already been invented and I clearly foresee that this office will shortly have to close up for lack of sufficient work. Therefore I do not longer feel warranted in drawing my pay from my government.”

In June 1925 “Scientific American” discussed this topic in the “Notes and Queries” section. Senator Copeland’s 1923 remark about an unidentified commissioner was viewed skeptically. The magazine solicited a response from the current commissioner:²⁰

The present Commissioner of Patents replying to a letter inquiring as to the doctor’s address wrote:

“The only foundation that I know for such a statement is a legend that fifty years ago one of the examiners in this office resigned his position since he thought the time would soon come, when everything would be patented. How near he came to his guess may be seen from the fact that during the last two years this office has received about 9,000 patent and trade-mark applications each month.”

In 1933 “The Saturday Evening Post” published an article by Samuel Crowther who told a version of the anecdote set in 1893. The word “employee” was spelled as “employe”:²¹

In the year 1893 — which, it will be remembered, was a panic year with Free Silver and all other known money notions raging — an employe of the Patent Office resigned his job. That anyone should voluntarily separate himself from a public pay roll in a time of depression is of itself noteworthy. But this man had reasons which seemed to him good. He wanted a career, and in the Patent Office there could be no career, he declared, for everything had been invented which could be invented and soon the employes would be only watchmen guarding the records.

In 1938 “Esquire” magazine published “A Moratorium on Brains” by Frank Lane Brunton which included an instance set in 1848:²²

“There’s nothing more to invent. Everything that can be invented has been invented!”

The chief clerk of the United States patent office had reached the point where he was pretty bitter about it all. He had issued patents on a lot of fantastic, screwy schemes. Everything conceivable had been patented; the well of ideas had run dry.

So he threw his quill pen on the floor, kicked his stool into the corner and resigned his job. Then he took himself to the nearest capital grog shop and sipped his drink while watching the unwieldy wagons and carriages lumber through the Washington mud that passed for streets. That was in 1848. Unfortunately history does not record his name or whether he invented a new method of elbow-bending.

In 1963 “Approach: The Naval Aviation Safety Review” referred to the legend:²³

We cannot be like the patent clerk who resigned because he believed “everything that can be invented has been invented.” Inventions propagate more inventions, and most of them have applications in modern sea power.

In 1981 “Facts and Fallacies: A Book of Definitive Mistakes and Misguided Predictions” compiled by Chris Morgan and David Langford included a version of the legend set in 1899:²⁴

We suppose that at just about any period of history one can imagine, the average dim-witted official will have doubted that anything new can be produced: the attitude cropped up again in 1899, when the Director of the US Patent Office urged President McKinley to abolish the Office, and even the post of Director, since:

Everything that can be invented has been invented.

In 1984 “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation” compiled by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky repeated the legend. The authors cited by Morgan and Langford for support:²⁵

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
— Charles H. Duell (Commissioner of U.S. Office of Patents), urging President William McKinley to abolish his office, 1899

In 1989 “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine published an investigation into this topic titled “A Patently False Patent Myth” by librarian Samuel Sass who concluded that the tale was apocryphal.²⁶

In 2006 quotation expert Ralph Keyes published “The Quote Verifier” which included a section about this topic. Keyes agreed with Sass that the tale was questionable.²⁷

In 2011 quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro published a piece in the “Yale Alumni Magazine”. He presented several helpful citations and also indicated that the tale was dubious.²⁸

In conclusion, there are numerous versions of this legend. The resigning individual has been either the Commissioner of the Patent Office, one of the principal examiners, or an unnamed clerk. The date specified has been highly variable. Each of these years has been specified: 1830, 1833, 1840, 1843, 1845, 1847, 1848, 1864, 1893, and 1899. Currently, there is no substantive support for this tale in its various permutations, and QI believes it is apocryphal. Perhaps future researchers may discover a germane resignation note from a patent clerk, but QI thinks this is unlikely because examiners are the most aware of ongoing technological and scientific advances.

Image Notes: An illustration of a tree with icons representing invention and innovation in the business domain. Picture from geralt at Pixabay

Acknowledgements: Thanks to previous researchers including Albert A. Hopkins, Ebner Jeffrey, Samuel Sass, David P. Mikkelson, Ralph Keyes, Fred R. Shapiro, and Barry Popik. These researchers uncovered several of the citations listed above. Thanks to veriflip who mentioned a typo.

[1] 1844, Report of The Commissioner of Patents Showing the Operations of the Patent Office During the Year 1843, Referred to the Committee on Patents and the Patent Office on February 13, 1844, Ordered to be printed on February 27, 1844, Start Page 1, Quote Page 6, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link

[2] 1970, U.S. House of Representatives, Ninety-First Congress, Second Session, Hearing Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, Topic: Legislative Branch Appropriations for 1971, Reprint “Nothing Left To Invent” by Ebner Jeffrey from the “Journal of the Patent Office Society” in July 1940, Quote Page 286 and 287, (Includes copy of resignation letter from Henry L. Ellsworth to the U.S. President dated April 1, 1845), U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington. (Google Books Full View) link

[3] 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

[4] 1898 March 22, Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Volume 82, Number 12, Report of the Commissioner of Patents To Congress For the Year Ending December 31, 1897, The Development of Industries Through Patented Inventions, Quote Page 1913, Government Printing Office, Washington.(Google Books Full View) link

[5] 1899, Punch, Or the London Charivari, Punch’s Almanack For 1899, Section: December, The Coming Century, Unnumbered Page, Column 3, Published at the Office of Punch, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link

[6] 1900 July 15, The American Practitioner and News, Volume 30, Number 2, Doctorate Address Delivered at the Commencement of Kentucky School of Medicine by Roswell Park M.D. (Professor of Surgery in the University of Buffalo, New York), Start Page 41, Quote Page 54, Published by John P. Morton & Company, Louisville, Kentucky. (Google Books Full View) link

[7] 1901 December 28, The Dayton Daily News, Section: Saturday Magazine Supplement, Great Prizes For Inventors by Waldon Fawcett, Quote Page 11, Column 1, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)

[8] 1911 July 30, The Sun, Section 3, The Millionth Patent, Quote Page 3, Column 7, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)

[9] 1911 August 5, Michigan Manufacturer, Volume 7, Number 6, The Millionth Patent, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link

[10] 1911 September 15, The American Bottler, The Millionth Patent, Quote Page 50, Column 1, The American Bottlers Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[11] 1912 June 12, The Washington Post, Growth of Patent Office, Quote Page 70, Column 2, Washington D.C. (Newspapers_com)

[12] 1915 October 16, Scientific American, Volume 113, Number 16, Nothing More to Invent? Start Page 334, Quote Page 334, Column 3, Munn & Company Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[13] 1915 November 15, Mutual Underwriter, Volume 35, Number 8, Patent Office Clerk Who Resigned, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Rochester, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[14] 1920 April, The American Magazine, Have You an Inventor in Your Family? by Bruce Barton, Start Page 70, Quote Page 288, Column 1, The Crowell Publishing Company, Springfield, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link

[15] 1920 May, The Expositor, Volume 21, Number 8, Forty Martyrs and Forty: Crowns Children’s Sermon by Reverend W. Douglas Swaffield, Quote Page 832 and 834, F. M. Barton Publisher, Cleveland, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link

[16] 1920 July, Public Libraries, Volume 25, Number 6, Section: Department of School Libraries, Teaching the Use of Books and Libraries in the Grades, Quote Page 349, Column 1, Library Bureau, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link

[17] 1922 August, The Monthly Review of the American Electro-Platers’ Society, Volume 9, Number 8, Editorial: Essentials To Progress, Quote Page 3, Published by the American Electro-Plater’s Society, Oneida, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[18] 1923 May 30, The Charlotte Observer, Senator Copeland Urges Meeting Of The Nations In Economic Conference (Associated Press), Quote Page 11, Column 1, Charlotte, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)

[19] 1923 November, Hardware Dealers’ Magazine, Volume 60, Number 5, The Land Above The Collar Band by C. H. Handerson, Start Page 31, Quote Page 31, Hardware Dealers’ Magazine, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[20] 1925 June, Scientific American, Section: Notes and Queries, Conducted by Albert A. Hopkins, Do Patent Commissioners Ever Resign?, Quote Page 426, Column 1, Scientific American Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[21] 1933 September 16, The Saturday Evening Post, Have We Developed Our Home Market? by Samuel Crowther, Start Page 18, Quote Page 18, Column 1, The Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (EBSCO MasterFILE Premier)

[22] 1938 July, Esquire, Article: A Moratorium on Brains by Frank Lane Brunton, Start Page 99, Quote Page 99, Esquire-Coronet Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)

[23] 1963 January, Approach: The Naval Aviation Safety Review, Volume 8, Issue 7, The Navy’s Latent Resource: Creative Brainpower by R. L. Bothwell, Start Page 13, Quote Page 14, U.S. Naval Aviation Safety Center, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link

[24] 1981 Copyright, Facts and Fallacies: A Book of Definitive Mistakes and Misguided Predictions by Chris Morgan and David Langford, Chapter: Inventions, Quote Page 64, John Wiley & Sons, Canada Limited, Toronto, Canada. (Verified with hardcopy)

[25] 1984, The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky, Chapter: Inventions: The Triumph of Technology, Quote Page 203, Pantheon Books, New York. (Verified on paper)

[26] 1989 Spring, Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 13, Number 3, A Patently False Patent Myth by Samuel Sass, Start Page 310, End Page 313, Published by Center for Inquiry Inc., Amherst, New York. (Verified with scans; accessed on June 22, 2023) link

[27] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Section: Phony False Forecasts, Quote Page 162, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

[28] 2011 May/Jun, Yale Alumni Magazine, Volume 74, Number 5, Arts & Culture: You can quote them by Fred Shapiro, New Haven, Connecticut.
(Accessed on June 22, 2023) link



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