Collectibles: The Shape of an Idea

The item pictured here—a miniature model of a 19th-century brush-making machine that could produce tools as small as paintbrushes and as large as brooms—today serves only as a curio, albeit a finely crafted one. But its original purpose was far more serious, for it was designed to impress the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Thomas Duggan and Thomas Jesson, inventors from Ireland, created the brush maker and sought patents for it in their native country and the United States. They commissioned a professional model maker to build the miniature to accompany their American petition, which otherwise would have been rejected; from 1790 to 1880, the patent office required each applicant to submit a model of the invention, no larger than 12 square inches, with the paperwork.


The real machine’s appearance was not as fanciful as the model’s. “[The brush maker] would have had none of the detail. It truly doesn’t need the feet. The feet have nothing to do with it,” says Alan Rothschild, a Cazenovia, N.Y., collector who owns the brass and cast-iron model. “This [use of decorative detail] is to make the model look as though it deserves a patent. That’s one reason you see such elaborate work.” He explains that the model makers would coax clients into letting them make the models as attractive as possible by implying that the patent inspectors would approve more readily a spiffy-looking device. Duggan and Jesson received patent no. 195,017 on September 11, 1877—either because the inspector was convinced by the device’s design or seduced by the model.

“America’s was the only patent system that required a model,” says Rothschild, adding that officials believed they would help inspectors understand the designs. “The problem was, no one had a clue how many there would be and how much space they would take up. It got out of hand.” The office received more than 200,000 miniature artificial legs, lathes, diamond cutters, engines, musical rocking chairs, rowing machines, burglar alarms, whiskey stills, printing presses, and other renderings of bright ideas before repealing the model requirement. Although fires at the patent office in 1836 and 1877 claimed tens of thousands of the items, the remaining models consumed so much space that Congress permitted the office to sell its collection in 1925. Some were returned to patent holders and others went to the Smithsonian Institution, but many were purchased by collectors such as Cliff Petersen, from whom Rothschild obtained the brush maker.

Rothschild knew little about patent models before coming across a collection at an upstate New York antiques show in the late 1980s. His reaction to them was swift and strong. “I thought, ‘These are the greatest things I’ve ever seen,’ and I purchased three or four of them,” he says, recalling that one replicated a washing machine and another was either a miniature furnace or fireplace. Thus hooked, Rothschild amassed more than 4,000 models, most of which he displays at his upstate New York home in a private museum that is named for himself and Petersen.

Rothschild has long sought to establish a national patent model museum and recently began selling pieces from his collection to fund his project. While others might view patent models as intriguing curiosities, Rothschild sees them as tangible examples of what makes America great. “Without the patent system, we would be a Third World country, because without it, nothing would have been developed. We changed from an agricultural society that plowed fields with horses to one that uses John Deere tractors,” he says, explaining that the patent system encouraged inventors because they knew they could protect their proprietary rights to—and therefore profit from—their creations. “The Industrial Revolution came about. The world changed, and the country changed.”

The Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum


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