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.

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, "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."

Changing lives and inventions

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.)

In 1990, he purchased his first patent model at an antique shop. Four years later, he bought several thousand of the models from Cliff Petersen, a collector in California.

Models can be fun

Perhaps the best way to understand Rothschild's fascination with patent models is to hear him speak about his favorite one – Patent No. 159,846, a "pigeon starter." Patented in 1875, the model is a crude version of a catlike animal that "probably wasn't made by a professional modelmaker," he says. Invented to be used by pigeon hunters, the device was supposed to scare pigeons into flight by popping up and making a loud noise.

But, like many patents, says Rothschild, the pigeon starter never made it to the marketplace. That's because hunting pigeons was outlawed shortly after the contraption was patented.

"Still," he adds, "kids relate to it because it's whimsical and wacky."

Only a fraction of Rothschild's models are on display. Most remain on shelves or in boxes in his basement. That's because he doesn't have enough room to showcase all of them in his home.

His dream is one day to establish a permanent museum for the collection – outside his house – so that more people can enjoy them firsthand. "I'd like to give the public a chance to view and learn from these important pieces of our history," he says. "They each have something to tell."

Follow patent models through history

1790: The US Patent Office was created. To obtain a patent, one hadto present a working model – in miniature –that showed how an invention worked.The first US patent was granted toSamuel Hopkins of Philadelphia for an improvement in the "making of potash by a new apparatus and process."

1823: An attempt was made to make alist of all of the then-existing models, which totaled about1,819.

1836: On July 13, a numbering system for patents was instituted.Patent No. 1 was issued to John Ruggles of Maine.

On Dec. 15, a firedestroyed the patent office and its nearly 10,000 patent models.Congress appropriated $100,000 for the restoration of 3,000 of the mostimportant ones.

1880: Patent models were deemed impractical– they took up too much space – so the law thatrequired them when applying for a patent was changed. More than 246,000patents had been issued by 1880, about 200,000 were represented bymodels.

1910: Patent No. 1,000,000 was issued. The patent office storedall remaining patent models – about 150,000 of them– in barns and basements, for lack of better places to keepthem.

1925: Storage of the models became expensive, so Congressappropriated $10,000 to get rid of them. On Dec. 3, the models weresold at auction to Sir Henry Wellcome, a philanthropist. Some say hewanted to open a patent museum, but he died before he could establishone.

1936: Wellcome's models were sold for $50,000 to Broadway producerCrosby Gaige. He then sold them to a group of businessmen for $75,000.The group formed American Patent Models Inc.

1940: American PatentModels declared bankruptcy, and the models were acquired by O. RundleGilbert, an auctioneer.

1979: Cliff Petersen, a collector in California,purchased Mr. Gilbert's collection for $500,000.

1990: Mr. Petersendonated 30,000 models and $1 million to the US Patent Model Foundation,online at, but kept about 5,000models in his personal collection.

1996: Alan Rothschild, of Cazenovia,N.Y., purchased about 4,000 patent models from Petersen's personalcollection for an undisclosed amount of money at two auctions in NewYork.

1998: Mr. Rothschild created the Rothschild Petersen Patent ModelMuseum and purchased 82 patent models from a museum inArkansas.

– Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum

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