AMERICAN patent law was, before 1790, based on previous English law but with the 1776 war of Independence sweeping away ties with the previous administration, many new regulations were brought out including new patent legislation which required a model to be submitted with every application.
The reasoning behind this was simple, and difficult to fault.
Grover and Baker Patent Model Sewing Machine
Perhaps the most famous patent model of them all –the machine submitted by Elias Howe in 1846
Before 1790 patents were granted at local legal offices where the officials had little or no engineering background. Rather like asking your local driving licence centre to check over an improvement in the electronic-engine management system on a Ferrari.
Clerks in these offices, whilst not able to read an engineering drawing, could be expected to understand a model. A model could also be used to demonstrate to officials that an idea actually worked.
Some American states had a model requirement before 1790 but it was not until that year that it became an America-wide law.
Grover and Baker 1851 Patent Model Sewing Machine
The Grover & Baker patent of 1851was supported by this model which shows little resemblance to the eventual machine
For three years the new system worked well. Patent applications were checked for merit and originality but such investigation took far too long, with non-experts being called upon to do the research and in 1793 the act was repealed.
From that date patents were simply granted following the application with no checks made at all. The idea was that the courts could be relied upon to settle any disputes between various inventors.
This decision made models even more important. Now judges and juries would have to compare various claims – so much easier for the layman with a three-dimensional model rather than a confusing set of drawings.
But, of course, this led to further complications. With no expert checking of patent applications, the court cases threw up the poor standard of some patent descriptions. In fact, some were so badly and inaccurately worded that technical experts had to be called in to re-write them with only the actual model as a reference.
By 1833 this system of wholesale acceptance was causing big problems — too many hair-brained and crackpot ideas were being promoted and the worthlessness of a patent wasn’t appreciated by the public who were led to believe that the granting of a US patent was a recommendation of the product by the American government.
Even the system of deciding a patent’s validity by the Courts was turning into a joke. Should a patentee not like the decision in a court he would simply take the matter up in another state and keep trying until he got a satisfactory result.
In 1836 the legislature finally got its act together and changed the law so that every application would in future go before a team of experts who would grant patents solely on merit.
These teams, with knowledge of industry and engineering, could cope with working drawings and serious consideration was given to abandoning the model requirement. But it was argued that models would still provide a “fast-filing system” for the administrators and a facility for the public and wannabe inventors to check what had been achieved before.