Saturday, August 24, 2013

Inventing a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection

Where: Smithsonian American Art Museum

When: through November 3, 2013

Every so often, the American Art Museum puts on a display dealing with patents, I assume due to the fact that the museum (along with the National Portrait Gallery) is located in the old Patent Office Building.  This small show contains several patent models from the largest existing collection of these items.

From 1836 - 1868, over 200,000 patent models were displayed on the top floor of the Patent Office Building, and in the 1850s, over 100,000 visitors per year came to see them.  Unlike in other countries, in the United States, an inventor had to submit a model along with a written description of the item in order to obtain a patent.  This was due to the fact that the patent examiners of the time lacked the sophistication to evaluate a patent without a model.  A whole host of model-making shops sprung up in the neighborhood surrounding the building (the neighborhood where my office is located).  In 1870, models were made optional, and in 1880, they were actually prohibited unless requested by the Commissioner of Patents.

This display consists of various models submitted at the time that these were required; one of them is a model for an imitation feather (made of colored yarn or thread) that was for one of the rare patents granted to a woman, Henrietta S. Orttlopp.  Another actually is a "better" mousetrap; a complicated device that involved the mouse taking a piece of cheese and then falling through a trap door.

Sadly, fire destroyed many of the models, and the need for office expansion led to the disposal of those that remained.   Some were returned to their original patent seekers, the rest were sold piecemeal to various collectors or other interested parties.  Alan Rothschild, a businessman from Cazenovia, NY, bought over 4,000 of them and has them on display in his home (which one can only imagine is quite large).  All of those on display here are from his collection.

Verdict: An interesting little show - easily managed in a lunch hour.  Recommended if you have an interest in the Penn Quarter neighborhood or the Portrait Gallery/American Art building.

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