Walking through an age of innovation
By J. Chambless
'Inventing a Better Mousetrap,' a book by Alan and Ann Rothschild, accompanies the new Hagley collection.
By John Chambless
In 1790, when the nation was young and ever-expanding, the Patent Act set up some rules for inventors. In an age of exploration and burgeoning technology, anyone who had a design for something new – or an improvement to an already existing item – could submit a written description, a drawing and a scale model to the U.S. Patent Office. Inventions were given such prominence that until 1836, every patent issued was personally signed by the President of the United States.
Last week, Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington unveiled a huge addition to their permanent collection – the Rothschild Patent Model Collection of 4,101 models. At a press conference announcing the gift to the museum, Hagley executive director David A. Cole, Jr., admitted that the staff is somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer scale. “It's been an interesting year,” he said, smiling, as he discussed the decade-long association between Ann and Alan Rothschild and Hagley Museum that led to placing the collection in Delaware. Unpacking, cataloguing and conserving the patent models “will take well over a year,” Cole said. “There are 962 boxes of them to go through.”
The models join 849 patent models that Hagley already held, along with the early innovations and patents from the DuPont family.
On display in the Copeland Room of the Hagley Library are 100 of the models, placed behind glass doors. The display will change over time, with newly catalogued models circulated through the cases. But that's just the beginning. “These models will be used to inspire the innovator in everyone,” Cole said.
As a repository for science and innovation, Hagley now has the world's largest private collection of American patent models. Taken as a whole, the collection is a huge slice of American innovation. The models range from the mundane – napkin holders, boots, fruit baskets, folding chairs and fruit jar covers – to the exotic and ludicrously impractical, like
“Improvement in Boats for Duck Shooting,” which was a platform with a decoy swan at each corner, and a pair of pants in the middle that a hunter would step into and float out into a pond. There are also medically dubious “Electro-Galvanic Chairs” from 1878 that gave electric current treatments, and dazzling machines that are as complex as anything produced during the machine age – a “Portable Engine” from 1879, a “Velocipede” bike from the same year, and a “Machine for Making Paper Collars” with all of its hundreds of moving metal parts. Everything from a new way to cut boot laces to improving locomotives was brought up by inventors, most of whom never saw their inventions produced.
But the ingenuity of the designs – and the way they speak of an era of steam power and manual labor – make them fascinating. The model of a hand-cranked pulley system for “moving invalids from bed” resembles the systems being used in hospitals today. The “Artificial Sliding Hill” from 1869 was a tower and slide that was to be packed with ice. An elevator would take people to the top of the tower so they could slide down again and again.
There was a nationwide industry of model makers who would produce patent models for inventors who lacked the skill or materials to make the models themselves. The approved patent models were displayed in Washington, D.C., and visitors would flock to see them, eager to find out the latest innovations. By 1880, the Patent Office was running out of room to store all the models, and ended the model requirement. Many inventors still submitted models, however. By 1893, the models were taken out of public view. Fires in 1836 and 1877 destroyed thousands of them. Others were returned to the descendants of the inventors, and most went up for auction, scattered to collections. The Smithsonian took 3,500 of them for its collection. The models remained curiosities and collector's items, but largely faded from the public eye. “Most of these inventors did not make it big,” Cole said in his opening remarks. “But the important thing is the spirit behind them. These models are beautifully crafted, and are both working models of inventions and works of art in themselves.”
But enthusiastic collectors such as Alan Rothschild were fascinated by them. Speaking at the press conference, he admitted that he could talk for hours about patent models, but summed up his donation to Hagley by saying that he first saw one of the models in 1994 “and fell in love with them that day. I'm honored and pleased that Hagley is the new home for this collection. It has been Hagley's mission to keep history alive and foster innovation, and I hope that these models are used as an incentive to spark new innovations.”
Also speaking at the press conference was Elizabeth Dougherty of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, who gave a bit of context. “Over the past 225 years, our office has issued 9 million U.S. Patents,” she said. “Each one represents a mere thought being turned into three-dimensional reality.”
The Rothschilds have just published a book, “Inventing a Better Mousetrap,” that will be sold at Hagley. It illustrates the whole collection and gives background on the purpose of the inventions and the people who came up with them. There are also do-it-yourself projects that aspiring inventors can tackle, step by step.
After seeing just a small sampling of the collection, it's possible to share the boundless optimism of these early inventors. In the lobby of the Hagley Library are patent documents signed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as the very silly 1875 prototype of a Pigeon Starter, a crude wooden cat shape that sprang up when a mechanism was tripped, scaring pigeons into flight so hunters could shoot them. The device was never put into use, because shooters soon turned to clay pigeons as an easier and more humane solution. But it's intriguing to think just how much work someone put into this invention, and every one of the other models included in the collection. After seeing them, you may just want to go home and do some inventing of your own.
Selected models will be on display in the Copeland Room of the Hagley Library. The library is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, and the second Saturday of the month from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, call 302-658-2400 or visit www.hagley.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless,