‘to reinvent the wheel’: meaning and origin

Of American-English origin, the phrase to reinvent the wheel means to recreate something that already exists, especially at the expense of unnecessary time and effort; to repeat effort needlessly.

However, in quotation 9 below, the phrase, used in the context of a renewed awakening, has a positive connotation.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase to reinvent the wheel that I have found:

1-: From Ways and Means in Which Research Workers, Executives, and Others Use Information, by Margaret Egan and Herman H. Henkle, published in Documentation in Action (New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1956):

The intensive literature search at the beginning of a research project is intended to define the precise boundaries between the known and the unknown and to forestall unnecessary duplication or, as one scientist has expressed it, to avoid re-inventing the wheel. Throughout the technical literature there is to be found an occasional reference to the uneconomic character of such hit-and-miss research procedures, but nowhere is there to be found any reliable information on the problem of determining when a point of diminishing returns has been reached in an exhaustive literature search. One can not but wonder whether the procedures of search are so cumbersome that in the long run occasional duplication of effort costs less than exhaustive literature searching.

2-: From the column Over the Coffee, by Harlan Miller, published in The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) of Tuesday 29th March 1960:

It’s a pity young boys & girls in DM and all over Iowa won’t take advice from Pa & Mom, but that’s the way it is, that’s the way the ball bounces. (In Neb. they heed parental advice, & also in Minn. Not in Iowa.)
I’m resigned to this: Each generation must re-invent the wheel for itself, must discover afresh what makes things roll.

3-: From Crossroads Report, published in The Abilene Reporter-News (Abilene, Texas) of Wednesday 22nd November 1961:

Dear Editor:
I see where some banks aim to keep extra sets of books stashed away in bomb shelters, so nobody will get his note cancelled by nuclear blast.
My forward-looking neighbor says this news sure wrecks his little dream of maybe being able to come up out of his 20th Century Cave to face the world debt-free.
But he can see himself now, after World War III, working away on a new stone bowling ball, or re-inventing the wheel, and being plagued by smoke signals reminding him that he’s still behind on his car payments.
D. E. Scott
Crossroads, USA.

4-: From Is Our Patent Law Out of Date?, by Douglas Cater, published in The Emporia Gazette (Emporia, Kansas) of Wednesday 17th January 1962—the following is about Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, “the testy and tenacious pioneer of the nuclear submarine”:

As Assistant Chief of Bureau for Nuclear Propulsion, Rickover serves the Defense Department; but as Manager for Naval Reactors, he also works for the Atomic Energy Commission. The two jobs gave him added authority when he testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee last summer, roundly lambasting the Pentagon’s patent policy. Impatient with the argument that private contractors require this extra incentive to make their services available to government, Rickover pointed out that defense contractors were guilty of a double standard in their patent practices. They do not hesitate to lay claim to any discoveries made by their employes and subcontractors even while protesting bitterly against government’s making the same claim. With more than seventy per cent of each year’s patent applications now being filed by corporations, he argued, the old notion of rewarding the individual inventor has long since gone by the board.

Reinventing the Wheel

But Rickover’s chief concern is not with the inequities. He is convinced that Defense Department policy blocks the flow of information vital to national defense and is retarding the nation’s growth. By buttressing the protective walls around production techniques, he claims, the government is financing delay and duplication. It must pay many times over while each contractor is obliged to “reinvent the wheel.”

5-: From Ownership of Patents Touchy Capital Issue, published in the Evening World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska) of Thursday 19th April 1962:

The NASA statute, enacted in 1958, requires NASA research contractors “to surrender to the Government the ownership of inventions arising in the course of Federally sponsored research.”
“This provision,” said Committee Chairman Daddario (Dem., Conn.) “which was placed in the act as an afterthought . . . is too dangerous to the nation’s position in the space race to be permitted to stand.”
Over in the Senate, Senator Russell Long (Dem., La.) has a directly opposite view. There, the Defense Department is under fire from him because, contrary to NASA, it permits its research contractors to hold patents on their inventions.
As a result, he said, one Government contractor often withholds information required by another Government contractor—“In fact, some have stated that a person must virtually reinvent the wheel.”

6-: From The Montana Standard and The Butte Daily Post (Butte-Anaconda, Montana) of Thursday 19th April 1962:

Toastmasters Give Impromptu Talks

Three of the four speakers made their talks without prior preparation at the weekly meeting of the Butte Toastmasters.
They and their topics were Guy McBane, “Creative Imagination”; Cleve Bishop, “Efficiency”; Charles Reed, “Measure of Success,” and Owen Bush, “Must Man Forever Reinvent the Wheel?”

7-: From Gadgets, Gimmicks and Genius: If Your Invention Is Useful and Original, You Can Probably Get a Patent, by Eugene D. Fleming, U.S. Department of Commerce, published in the Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee) of Sunday 24th March 1963:

Right now, because of the high rate of invention, plus the increasing complexity of technology, the Patent Office is in a dilemma.
It has to be certain that every patent granted is for an original invention, but processing a patent application simply takes too long—an average of three and a half years.
This not only tends to discourage new invention, but drastically holds up the vital diffusion of new technology involved.
Moreover, since our Patent Office is the world’s foremost clearing house for scientific and technical information, it leads to wasteful duplication in research, to the danger of “reinventing the wheel,” as one wag expressed it.

8-: From Expert on Trouble Sees Evidence of Knowledge Foundering Man, by Art Seidenbaum, published in the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of Tuesday 14th May 1963:

An executive of a mammoth research and development firm has admitted that his staff “reinvents the wheel three times a week,” meaning that even within the same outfit one researcher’s right hand has no idea what another’s left is doing.

9-: From S.A.V.E. *: Value Engineering New National ‘Cult’, by Boyd Burchard, published in The Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington) of Thursday 5th December 1963:

When a small cross-section of Seattle industry management called a meeting one evening this week to open a Seattle chapter of S.A.V.E., 120 potential members from 20 companies showed up to hear the story from national officers.
The rise of value engineering, Anthony R. Tocco, S.A.V.E. president and manager of value engineering for Space Technology Laboratories, Rendondo Beach, Calif., told the Seattle group, follows the Darwin theory that a living organism must adapt to its environment or perish.
The “honeymoon” of cost-plus-fixed-fee business, in which profits are based on waste, is over, Tocco said. “The accent, in industry, business and government,” he added, “now is on cost-consciousness, and value engineering is here at the right time to serve the need.”
“It is a time of reinventing the wheel—of a reawakening of the virtues of frugality in all of American life,” he said.

* S.A.V.E.: Society of American Value Engineers.

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