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IN THE

art galleries

the CURIOUS WORLD of Patent Models

LEFT: Improvement in Swings (Patent #109,165), November 8, 1870. Inventor: Lucius Winston, Pontiac, IL.

Improvement in Sewing Machines (Patent #154,084), August 11, 1874. Inventor: George Rehfuss, Philadelphia, PA.

RIGHT: Roller Skate (Patent #90,603), May 25, 1869. Inventor: George Stillman, Cincinnati, OH.

Patent models pictured courtesy of the Rothschild Patent Model Collection.

FEBRUARY 27–MAY 9

America’s incredible success is due primarily to the creations of inventors. From the time Thomas Jefferson formed the United States Patent Office in 1790, inventors were required to submit a working, scale model of each invention when applying for a patent. (A patent is a government-issued document that protects an invention or idea for up to 20 years, giving the inventor the opportunity to produce and sell the invention, or license others to do so, at a profit.)

The Curious World of Patent Models features 50 original models that date from 1860 to 1902. They are on loan from the Rothschild Collection, the world’s largest group of viewable United States patent models. These antiques are intricately crafted miniatures. Only one model exists for each invention, complete with its handwritten original tag. The models on view represent many inventions that we now take for granted,

from weaving looms and washing machines to mechanical toys, caskets, swing sets, and even the game of checkers. Models from famous inventors, foreign inventors, and a woman inventor are included.

Producing the model was generally costly, and in the 1800s patent-model making became a cottage industry employing skilled artisans who created an operating reality from the inventor’s drawings. These metalsmiths, machinists, watchmakers, and other skilled craftsmen also helped to work out any kinks in the design. Inventors who could not afford to hire professionals crafted models themselves.

Models were to be no larger than 12 inches square and accompanied by paperwork and diagrams explaining the invention’s purpose, construction, and operation. These working models enabled the examiners to compare similar inventions side by side. No other patent systems anywhere in the world required

models, then or now.

The models were first displayed to the public in 1810. It became a local custom on Sundays to stroll through the rooms of the patent office to see the new models. By 1823 the existing models totaled 1,819. Fires at the patent office in 1836 and 1877 destroyed tens of thousands of the models.

Although Congress abolished the legal requirement for submitting models in 1870, the United States Patent Office continued to make it mandatory until 1880, and some models were still being submitted a few years after the turn of the century. By that time, approximately 200,000 models were housed at the agency. After the agency ran out of space, it deemed the model requirement impractical. In 1925, Congress ordered that the patent models be sold. Today there are more than 7,600,000 U.S. patents, but applicants now submit only written specifications and diagrams of their inventions.

The exhibition is presented courtesy of the Rothschild Patent Model Collection with tour management by Smith Kramer FineArt Services. It is supported in part by the law firm of Roy & Kiesel, PLC, patent attorneys; the intellectual property law section of Taylor Porter; and a Project Assistance Grant from the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge.

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