Before the invention of the internet, it sometimes took weeks for falsehoods to travel around the world. Now, a rumor that gets started by nine a.m. can circle the globe and have a veneer of plausibility by lunchtime.
Back in the days before people typed with their thumbs, a story circulated that in the late nineteenth century, the head of the U.S. Patent Office advised President McKinley to close the office because “everything that could be invented has been invented.” Somehow this story found its way to Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters, who incorporated it into an address the president gave to graduating high school students on May 19, 1987. It appeared in print elsewhere, and got passed around in conversation as accepted fact.
But it didn’t happen.
The man to whom the quote is often attributed, Charles Duell, was the head of the Patent Office in 1899, but I can’t find any evidence that he urged McKinley to shut it down. And I wanted the story to be true, because I was then going to track down the last invention — the one that convinced Duell that civilization had reached its apogee. Wouldn’t that have been cool, to find out that he thought there was nothing more to be achieved since (let’s say) the zipper had been invented? No such luck.
I got a brief flutter of hope when I discovered that in 1843, Patent Office Commissioner Henry Ellsworth made a report to Congress in which he said, “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.” But let’s face it — that was rhetorical gas, not a serious proposal to close down the Patent Office.
It turns out that patents have been churned out continuously since July 31, 1790, when someone named Samuel Hopkins was granted the very first U.S. patent. It was issued for his “improvement in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash by a new apparatus and process.” Potash, as you may know, has been used for centuries in the production of soap, glass, and fertilizer.
Hopkins’ patent, by the way, was not listed in the official records as #1, because until 1836, patents were listed by names and dates. A renumbering process began that year, because a fire in the patent office destroyed most of the records.
Patent numbers are now in the multiple millions. In 2008 alone there were over 185,000 patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as it is now known. It receives 400,000 – 500,000 applications every year, but the majority — for things like goggles that can “see” invaders from outer space — are rejected.
I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you that the story you heard about the Patent Office nearly being closed isn’t true. But aren’t you glad it wasn’t? If it had been shut down, inventors might have said, “oh, what’s the use?” And then some genius might have been too discouraged to come up with humankind’s finest accomplishment: the karaoke machine.