"Everything that can be invented has been invented." -- Charles H. Duell, U.S. Commissioner of Patents, in 1899.
Rumour has it that a commissioner for patents once resigned and asked for his office to be closed, because he believed everything that can be invented has been invented.
In The Patent Office Pony: A History of the Early Patent Office, Kenneth W. Dobyns offers some information on the quote:
"Mr. Ellsworth (Commissioner of Patents from 1835-1845) wrote one sentence in the 1843 report which has been misunderstood and misquoted ever since. He wrote: "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." The statement which is falsely attributed to some Commissioner or another, based upon this, is that "Everything that can be invented has been invented." No Commissioner ever said this, and probably no Commissioner has ever thought it.
As for the possibility that the statement was uttered by Commissioner Duell in 1899, Samuel Sass points out that the 1899 Annual Report contains no such quote. In fact, several of Duell's statements in the report clearly indicate his belief in the potential for invention remained strong.
Halspal says Hey, Mike, I've long suspected the birth of that quote was from a popular Henrik Ibsen play published in 1884, called "The Wild Duck." A pivotal line in the play has a lazy inventor uttering the words, "Other people have invented almost everything already. It becomes more and more dffficult every day." Just a theory, man.
Two Sheds says This quote is also credited to Duell in The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. In a footnote, it says that this was quoted from Facts and Fallacies by Chris Morgen and David Langford, published in 1981 in Exeter, England by Webb & Bower.