Henry L. Ellsworth? Charles H. Duell? Roswell Park? Royal S. Copeland? Apocryphal?
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: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 … Continue reading
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.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, … Continue reading
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: 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
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.
The full version of this article with many additional citations is available on the Medium platform here.
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|