“Everything that can be invented – has already been invented,” and other famous invention-related quotes

This (in)famous quote has long been attributed to the commissioner of the United States Patent Office, a Mr. Charles Duell, back in 1899, and it’s one of my personal favorites. Since the patent office opened in 1790, it has registered more than 6.2 million patents.

When I called the patent office in an attempt to verify the accuracy of this quote, the lady on the other end of Mr. Bell’s invention told me that the commissioner was misquoted when he said that. Whether or not she was being honest is anyone’s guess; you really couldn’t blame her if she was simply towing the company line in order to avoid embarrassment.

Either way, the jury is still out on whether the former patent commissioner is an early inventor of the art of being misquoted.

Surprisingly, though, this wasn’t the first time someone had made such a remark. In 10 A.D., Roman Engineer Julius Sextus Frontinus said, “Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further developments.”

This began a long line of infamous invention-related notable quotables, such as:

“That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?” … President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, after Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the telephone to him at the White House.
“There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom,” … Robert Milken, Nobel Prize winner in physics, 1923
“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” … Lord Kelvin, President Royal Society, 1895
“Who the hell wants to watch movies with sound?” Who said this? Believe it or not, it was the president of Warner Brothers Studios, Harry Warner, sometime around 1918.
… and one of the all-time favorite infamous baseball quotes …

“Ruth made a grave mistake when he gave up pitching. Working once a week, he might have lasted a long time and become a great star” … Tris Speaker on Babe Ruth’s future, 1921.
While this quote doesn’t deal directly with inventions, it does relate to a new idea – putting Babe Ruth in right field full-time. The possibility of the Babe once being a pitcher sounds pretty crazy, doesn’t it?

About as crazy as the former patent commissioner saying that, “Everything that can be invented – has already been invented.”

While no one wants to claim credit for such ridiculous quotes as those mentioned above, there are some memorable quotes worth claiming. Do you know who said each of the following quotes? The answers are shown below:

1. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

2. The patent system “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” Hint: He was a U.S. President who did some inventing of his own.

3. “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”

4. “A country without a patent office and good patent laws … couldn’t travel any way but sideways or backwards.”

5. “People think of the inventor as a screwball, but no one ever asks the inventor what he thinks of other people.”


1. Ralph Waldo Emerson is often credited with this quote, but the 17th and 18th century playwrights William Wycherley and Richard Sheridan both made variations on this phrase. Emerson actually said, “invention breeds invention.”
2. Abraham Lincoln
3. Thomas Edison
4. Mark Twain
5. Charles Kettering