The curious world of patent models
Thousands of people from across the US annually flock to a home tucked away off a long and winding backwoods road along Cazenovia Lake in central New York. Fans of small gadgets and inventions know the house to be the headquarters of the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum. It's home to the largest private collection of viewable antique US patent models in the world.Skip to next paragraph
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A patent is a government-issued document that protects an invention or idea from theft or misuse for up to 20 years. This gives the inventor the opportunity to produce and sell the invention – or license others to do so – and to make a profit. And while "patent model" may not be a familiar term today, to US inventors between 1790 and the late 1800s, it was commonplace. In order to obtain a patent, an application had to be accompanied by a working model of the invention. These were called "patent models," and were no larger than 12 inches square.
"They were made for the patent examiners," Alan Rothschild, owner of the museum,says of the models, viewable online at the museum's website, www.patentmodel.org. "That way they could compare [similar inventions] side by side, to see if the patents were new and different. It was a unique system because no other patent system anywhere in the world required models – then or now."
Mr. Rothschild owns more than 4,000 of these models. About 700 are displayed on the second floor of his home.
Most of them were made by professional modelmakers and are more than 130 years old. The oldest is from 1809, and, like most of the others, it's maintained in perfect working order. That ongoing task is a labor of love for the collector, who sees himself as an "acting caretaker of the models, rather than their owner."
Indeed, the models' significance, he says, is that each is one of a kind. "Each patent tells you something about people's problems and their solutions."
When, for instance, commerce and banking increased following the Civil War, so, too, did theft and burglary. Not surprisingly, says Rothschild, patent applications for safes and other security-related devices also increased.
He has dozens of models of burglar- proofing inventions on display – from the wacky, a special bootjack to prevent the theft of one's shoes, to the useful, a door alarm with a mechanized buzzer.
The collection also contains numerous early examples of washing machines, ammunition, rubber, roller skates, tools, and exercise equipment, to name a few.
While Rothschild can't seem to get enough of the patent models, the US government didn't always share the same sentiment. The first patent office in Washington, which originally doubled as a museum, had to house the models. This was a manageable task in the early 1800s, when there were fewer than 10,000 patent models. But by 1880 – the year inventors were formally asked to stop submitting models because of inadequate space – there were more than 200,000.
Today, there are more than 7 million patents, but applicants now submit only written specifications and diagrams of their inventions. Most of the early patent models have been destroyed or lost, purchased by collectors, or donated to museums, including the Smithsonian and Rothschild's.
Even as a young man, Rothschild had an interest in collecting antiques. As a college student, he amassed a collection of historic pharmacy suppliesthat grew into a full-size replica of a 19th-century drugstore. (He has since donated it to the Museum of Science & Technology in Syracuse, N.Y.)