So the system of models survived until 1870 when the requirement was removed. But that’s all that happened. The revised law simply said that models were no longer required but inventors, well aware that models were displayed, still sent them with patent applications.
By 1888 the loophole was plugged. No more patent models were to be provided except in two particular cases.
A Willcox and Gibbs Patent Model Sewing Machine
Some patent models were simply machines taken straight from the assembly line. This Willcox and Gibbs machine was used by James Gibbs in 1858 to show improvements in his 1857 patent
Until 1903, when the Wright Brothers got off the ground, models were required for flying machines and even today if you want to patent a perpetual-motion machine, American government officials will want to see a working model first.
So here we had, during the most prolific part of the industrial revolution, tens of thousands of models flowing into the American Patent Office, providing a unique record of invention and achievement.
The official sources in the USA are more than a little coy about what happened to this model archive. If you write to the Patent Office you are fobbed off with a letter which talks about “dispersal to museums”, etc.
The facts are very different and a terrible indictment of the Patent Office and its oh-so-casual approach to the world’s greatest technical archive.
When, on 10 April 1790, the Patent Office was set up in Washington DC, models were stored by inventors’ names as no system of numerical cataloguing had been standardised.
For 20 years the models flowed in to such an extent that storing them was becoming a problem. Congress was approached for funds and agreed to buy Blodgets Hotel, a former music hall in Washington to provide a store and display area.
Maclean and Hooper Centennial Sewing Machine from 1876
Two models from the Maggie Snell Collection, London. The Maclean and Hooper Centennial dates from 1876 — the treadle model has yet to be researched
It immediately became a tourist attraction and, in good US style, opened all day on Sundays and late into the evenings so that the public could see first hand the inventiveness of the American people. British museums please take note.
The first threat to the models came in 1814 when the British were busy burning, sacking, pillaging and whatever else, in Washington. Most civic leaders had fled but not so William Thornton, superintendent of the Patent Office. He stayed and met the British troupes on the steps of the Blodget Hotel. Thornton successfully demanded to see the British commander and launched into a speech in which he likened the proposed burning of the building to the destruction of the library at Alexandria.
Over the top or not, it worked and Blodgets was left standing while all around it other government buildings burned.
In 1836 a new system of numbering was devised and a new, purpose-built home for the models is agreed, but before ground could be broken for the building, Blodgets burnt to the ground destroying every model produced to that date.
The new building was to house 10,000 models which was considered ample for the foreseeable future, but by the time it was completed four years later, rather like the British Library — although that still isn’t finished — it was already too small for the job.
During the next 30 years the situation got completely out of hand. models were stored on window ledges, stairways and corridors.
In 1877 the situation was eased somewhat by fire number two which destroyed a third of the models but they were still coming in quicker than they could be burnt and only the new law of 1888 stemmed the flood.
With no new models expected the Patent Office had simply to deal with the problem of how to deal with the ones it had.
Models which survived the blaze were moved into storage at the Union building and in 1908 certain institutions and inventors’ heirs were allowed to pick over them. The Smithsonian grabbed a few as did the Edison Company, but only 1,000 were disposed of in this way. Some of those picked out by Edison can still be seen today at the Deerborn Museum, Detroit, USA.