Building the Patent Knowledgebase With Life-Size Patent Models

Barbara J. Hampton, J.D., M.L.S.

Teasing out the evidence from inventors’ drawings, descriptions, and claims in patent records is something librarians at Patent and Trademark Resource Centers do with expertise and pride. Another important source for our understanding of inventions, the patent models illustrating the function of an invention, were created and submitted with patents between 1790 and 1880. The models show the invention in three dimensions (maximum size allowed: 12” x 12” x 12”) and even include some working parts.

Although some models were entirely made of wood, or nearly so, most used the expertise of a metalworker , a challenge for those whose inventive wealth was in ideas, not bank accounts or metal shops. However, the models made the inventor’s ideas clearer to those not fluent with technical drawings and descriptions. Technology historians and patent researchers get a better appreciation of the inventive concept. Beyond the technology of inventions, social scientists can see the evolution of family life and community culture as features were developed to address the needs of users, and manufacturing and marketing illustrated the business climate of the time.

Sadly, the Patent Office’s collection of models was decimated by accident (fires in 1836 and 1877 ). A small portion of the collection was salvaged and restored, but most were destroyed. Those losses were compounded by the resulting loss of interest in the remaining models and corresponding decision to move them off site. The final blow came with the impulse to declutter by selling nearly all patent models at auction in the early part of the twentieth century.

Fortunately, thanks to the persistence of a few philanthropic patent enthusiasts, a significant sample of these models has been recovered. Ann and Alan Rothschild collected a wide range of patent models and maintained a private museum for many years . Their newly published catalogue of their collection, Inventing a Better Mousetrap, gives us images of hundreds of these models, together with biographical and historical annotations. For those ready for a challenge, readers can test their skill identifying 25 patent models. There are also detailed instructions for replicating six models. Recently, the Rothschilds arranged for the collection to be housed in a more accessible location, the Hagley Museum in Greenville, DE, the former site of the gunpowder works founded by E. I. du Pont in 1802.