“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door,” runs the old saw. When the Patent Act was passed in 1790, it prevented copycats from marketing your mousetrap for up to 20 years, and inventors flooded Washington, D.C., with the required drawings and models. The word “patent” comes from the Latin patere, which means to lay open, and so part of the process required that the models—many exquisitely crafted—be exhibited to the public. When the grand galleries in the U.S. Patent Office Building were completed in 1868, 100,000 people a year went to view everything from “Artificial Limbs, Bridges, Coffins [to] Writing Apps. For the Blind,” according to an 1874 pamphlet. The patent building is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where some of the models have come home again for an exhibit called “Building a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models From the Rothschild Collection.” American ingenuity has never been on better display. Although most contraptions never got past the model stage, there was always a chance: One of the some 4,000 patents issued for mousetraps went to John Mast in 1899 for the classic snap trap.
As the Industrial Revolution gathered (ahem!) steam in the U.S., American dreamers caught the progress bug. Inventors attempted to mechanize everything and the kitchen sink—from household chores to agriculture to every aspect of the factory floor. The goal was not necessarily the advancement of science: The inventor often saw his brainchild (few 19th-century inventors were female) as a get-rich-quick scheme. Many, like Isaac Singer (U.S. Patent No. 8294), tried to improve on earlier patents in hopes of becoming, for instance, the next sewing machine king. Singer did manage to make his fortune, paying royalties to Elias Howe, who held the patent on the “original sewing machine” (U.S. Patent No. 4750). To attract investors and manufacturers as well as to impress the public, the best advertisement was a model that stood out from the 200,000 others in the chockablock galleries. Dimensions could not be more than about a foot square. The specialized craftsmen who built the scale—and often working—miniatures opened shops near the patent office to supply the demand. Upon receipt, each model was tagged with its patent number, the label attached by a ribbon of government-issue red cloth—whence the phrase “red tape.”
Mother Lode of Invention
They were one-of-a-kind objets d’art, but by 1880 the models were history, as patenting became a paperwork process. These physical manifestations of the American imagination were dispersed to warehouses, museums, auctions and collectors—and many are still for sale on eBay. Entrepreneur Alan Rothschild has amassed the largest private collection of U.S. patent models, from which the Smithsonian’s show is drawn, and has built galleries in his Cazenovia, N.Y., home to display thousands of them. A tinkerer himself, Rothschild hopes that seeing the models will, he says, “inspire the next generation of inventors.” Intellectual property today is displayed to the public online: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has partnered with Google to catalog patents on everything from software to human genes. There is no dearth of new inventions. Eight million patents have been issued to date and counting—including hundreds each year for mousetraps.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.