A length of fibre to extract a tooth –
a flint to decorate yourself with scars –
a large, strong thorn to make holes for tattoos –
an oyster shell to scrape off excess hair…
so health’s improved and beauty is accented.
High heels and wig show stature, vigour, youth;
a monocle improves both look and looking.
How we’ve advanced, compared to ancient times!
Some say there’ll be advances still to come,
but how, when all’s already been invented?
This poem is a riff on a 19th century joke. Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of US Patent Office in the late 1890s, 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.” (In fact Duell said in 1902: “In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”) But the joke appears to have had earlier incarnations in the 19th century in Punch magazine and elsewhere, presumably as the world was adapting to the reality of life changing more and more rapidly.
The poem is in iambic pentameter, but the only rhymes are between the two verses: the first lines of each and the last lines of each. But I feel that produces enough echo to make it sound adequate. My thanks to Bill Thompson for including it in the Alabama Literary Review – ALR 2021.