The Patent Office Legend

U.S. Patent No. 559,345

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.

14 responses to “The Patent Office Legend

  1. Looks like Dad’s old ttypewriter. We couldn’t read his writing so he typed his list of jobs for us to do before he got home.

  2. Sorry Tom, but because you “can’t find any evidence” means you are probably wrong. In this case you have not proven the legend is fictitious, you simply have not found the right document.

    Fiction writers seem to have an abnormally high regard for themselves, Ron L. Hubbard being a case in point. The difference is that Ron gave Hollywood a church of their own and made a fortune at the same time. In your profession just saying something goes a long way in making it fact. This also goes for saying something is false.

    Not convinced,

  3. And we all should believe YOU because….

    Hm. Let me see. According to your logic just because early humans could not find any evidence that Earth is a sphere means that Earth is not a sphere? We live on a flat piece of rock, right?

    Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence.
    Absence of proof is NOT proof of absence.

  4. The zipper had still to be invented — patented on April 29, 1913 and we celebrated the centennial yesterday. Good thing they didn’t close the office! We can do without the internet, but not zippers…

    • That was a red-letter day in the history of pants. I don’t know how you came across that fact, Jimbo, but thanks for passing it along. It makes me smile just imagining how zipper enthusiasts “celebrated the centennial yesterday.”

  5. A wonderful article. Thank you, Mr. Reeder.

  6. I was watching the History Channel this past Saturday and they made this very claim. Glad to hear it is (most probably) false.

    • It’s a persistent story — I think the first time I encountered it was decades ago in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. As I mentioned, though, a search of patent records shows that they have been issued continuously since July of 1790. Thanks for your comment.

  7. I, too, always wished this quote were true. But, alas, I’ve searched several times and found it to be just a classic American myth. But it sounds sooooo plausible!

    Truly, 1899 must have been an exciting time to live.

    • Patent #634,042 was issued in October of 1899. It was for something called the pneumatic carpet renovator, which was a precursor of the vacuum cleaner — exciting times indeed! Thanks for your comment.

  8. “You can read in the congressional record for [1830], “We’ve decided to close the patent office because everything has been invented that could possibly be invented.” as quoted by Hyrum W. Smith from a devotional given at Ricks College, 27 September 1988.

    • I tracked down Mr. Smith’s devotional online and found the quote you mentioned. I then went to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website. There were 447 patents issued in 1829, 544 issued in 1830 (one of which was for a knife sharpener), 573 in 1831, and so on — patents have been issued without interruption since the last decade of the 18th century. When Mr. Smith gave his talk back in 1988, that story about the closing of the Patent Office was going around, but it has subsequently been disproved.


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