Journalists, politicians and after-dinner speakers love to create a straw man to highlight the brilliance of their own arguments. Charles Duell, the 25th U.S. commissioner of patents from 1898 to 1901, was the perfect candidate. His much quoted statement, "Everything that can be invented has been invented," has been used again and again. But it turns out that Charles Duell may never have said it. In fact, it may never have been said at all.
I recently used the quote in a column about the lack of vision of policymakers. Not long after the column appeared, I received a letter from Karl Cannon, an attorney and journalist in Salt Lake City. At first I was alarmed by the letterhead with its impressive legal credentials and one of his specialties - intellectual property - prominently displayed. Cannon questioned the accuracy of the quote. Did I have evidence that Duell actually made the statement and could I cite the source?Then, to my relief, he took a humorous turn, admitting that he had used the quote himself and that even Bill Gates cited it in his book. Yet, despite much sleuthing, Cannon has been unable to trace the quote to Duell or to anyone else. Did I know something that he didn't?
I didn't have the original source. Like countless others, I had heard it many times and never questioned it, assuming it was a classic piece of Americana.
In my own defense, I did make a token effort to trace the quote but not for its authenticity. I didn't know how to spell Duell.
If fame goes along with having your name spelled correctly, then I may have done Mr. Duell some justice by resurrecting his complete name: Charles Holland. Now we can let Duell rest in peace - fame and reputation intact. In fact, it may be for the best that we lay Charles Duell to rest as a whipping boy. It was rumored that one of his disgruntled descendants considered legal action to put an end to the besmirching of his ancestor. But he decided against litigation, concluding, in the spirit of the original quote, that "everyone who can be sued has been sued."