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Everything That Can Be Invented Has Been Invented

In 1889, Charles H. Duell was the Commissioner of US patent office. He is widely quoted as having stated that the patent office would soon shrink in size, and eventually close, because…  

"Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
Charles H. Duell*, 1899


The "Eureka" effect is based upon an ancient myth regarding the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who upon discovering how to measure the volume of an irregular object, supposedly leaped out of a public bath, and ran home naked shouting "eureka," (I found it). 

Most of us would agree that there is still much to be invented and discovered. We tend to think these new “inventions” will be more extraordinary, advanced and innovative than those which preceded them.  This is not entirely true.  Many prior advances were revolutionary and extraordinary. An invention need not be revolutionary, or even unique, to be significant. Finally, many "new" inventions are derivative of their predecessors. 

From door locks to light bulbs, shovels to toilets, and the classic mouse-trap, innovation comes in many forms and from many directions, often right under our noses. Sliced bread?  Bottled water?  

Invention infers origination and innovation infers transformation, yet the concepts are inexorably entwined.

Nothing is so basic, or so great, that it cannot be made better.

Study the fish

Marty Marshall was my marketing professor at Harvard Business School, and a personal mentor.  In our first case study, he taught us to "study the fish,” then to study it again, more closely, you will notice new nuances previously undiscovered… and then again.  The message reinforced that regardless of how much is known, there is more to know.

No matter how much you think you understand your product, brand and customer there is more to learn.  And through knowledge comes relevant innovation.

The Blue Jean

Levi Strauss & Company studied their evolving customer along with their 501 iconic denim blue jean, created in 1873. Levi's noted that the most requested alteration for tailors “around the world” were for hemming and tapering the leg of the classic 501. Thus, this year, Levi’s re-invented the classic blue jean with built-in “customization and tapering:” the new Levi's 501ct. 

The Hand Towel

First there were leaves, then hand towels, and then cloth rolls one would pull and reuse. (Disgusting when you think about it...) Next was the "folded paper towel dispenser." Recently the "hot air dryer" replaced the towel dispenser.

And, now, Dyson is replacing the air dryer with their "Airblade"
Other hand dryers can blow viruses and bacteria onto your hands, some of it from feces…”


The Men's Belt

According to Wikipedia,
"Belts have been documented for male clothing since the  Bronze Age." - Roughly, 2500 B.C.

Randa Accessories ( is the world’s men’s accessories company. Recently, the company looked closely at one of their core classifications; belts; they sell over 40 million belts, annually. Randa wields a doubled-edged sword; the enviable position of industry dominance along with the considerable hurdle of sustained double digit growth. "A belt is a belt;" some see the category as a “commodity.”  To Randa, it’s not; they studied their fish. Necessity can be the mother of invention, or innovation.

This month, Randa opened its “belt lab.”  The lab's goal is to double the size of the entire belt market. Recent innovations include the reinvention of the holes in belts - now reinforced with “industrial-strength” materials sandwiched between layers of leather, an improved “patent-pending” reversible belt buckle technology (black to brown, leather to fabric, dress to casual), a new leather “stretch” belt feature, new point-of-sale fixtures, new size and color replenishment modeling, and more… (for more information read the press release, here). 

Study your fish; now study it again.

For inspiration, look at your core products, brands and customers more closely and more often.
  • Spend more time with your customers. Watch them, listen to them.
  • Remember, your customer keeps changing. Embrace change or suffer change.
  • Use your own products and services. Customers have the final vote and they vote for great product and services.
  • Use competitive products and services.  Don't have tunnel vision.
  • Study your returns and complaints. There are lessons to be learned.
  • Read online feedback.
  • Engage with customers via social media.

"We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring  
Will be to arrive where we started  
And know the place for the first time." 
- T.S. Eliot

(c) 2015, David J. Katz - New York City


* There is no evidence that Mr. Duell ever made that infamous statement. There is, however, evidence that an 1899 edition of Punch Magazine offered commentary entitled “The Coming Century” wherein a “genius" enters a patent office and asks, " "isn't there a clerk who can examine patents?" A boy replied, "Quite unnecessary, Sir. Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

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