American Sewing Machine Patent Models
by Graham Forsdyke
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.
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.
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but such investigation took far too long, with non-experts being called upon to do the research and in 1793 the act was repealed.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.
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.
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.
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.
The remaining models were offered for sale, but interest was low. P T Barnum bought some for a proposed museum in Manhattan and a few went to regional museums. This only reduced the number by 2,000 and Government funds appreciated by less than $65.
The rest, poorly packed and protected, began a sad tour of various storage sites. For a time they rested in the cellars of the House of Representatives, stopped off for a few years in a deserted section of the District of Columbia Workhouse, and finally came to rest in an abandoned livery stable where they rotted away until 1925.
That year, following a series of embarrassing questions in Congress, another attempt was made to find a buyer.
Up stepped Sir Henry Wellcome, the English drug baron, who bought the entire collection -- for an undisclosed sum -- with the intention of opening a museum. The models were moved to a company warehouse in Tuckahoe, Wyoming.
Wellcome, a great philanthropist, first offered the Smithsonian the chance to take anything from the collection.
Fortunately, the head of textiles at the Smithsonian at the time was Frederick Lewton, a man greatly into the history of the . He pulls out 700 machines but many remained for records of what is in which crate have in some cases disappeared. Again heirs of inventors are given the chance to claim models.
Wellcome died in 1936, his dream of a museum unrealised and his trustees offer the models for sale yet again. They are bought by a syndicate fronted by Broadway producer Crosby Gaige who aims to display them in the Rockefeller Center in New York.
He does show a small number but also sells of 700 to the organisers of the New York World's Fair. Another 900 are bought by the University of Texas. The World's Fair models are eventually re-sold to a Tuncliffe Fox who donated them to the Hagley Foundation in Wilmington, Delaware, where they remain today.
In 1940 Gaige sells out to a group of entrepreneurs calling itself "American Patent Models, Inc." A complete floor of a skyscraper office building is rented and the long job of unpacking the models begun.
Various models go on display at department stores as a teaser for the museum that the syndicate is planning to open in New York City.
Laudable though the intention might be, the group runs short of funds and pressured by the skyscraper owners for rent, moved the collection to the Neptune Storage Company in New Rochelle. Problem was that there wasn't enough money for this either and in 1941 the group is declared bankrupt.
At the public sale a Garrison, New York, auctioneer O Rundle Gilbert went for broke and bought the entire collection virtually sight unseen for by now most crates were unmarked and many records had been lost.
Gilbert paid $2,000 -- sounds cheap even by 1941 standards until you add in the $11,000 storage charge owed to Neptune that came with the deal.
The big unpacking job started but soon Gilbert realised the enormity of the task and decided to sell off the first few hundred out of the crates to help pay for cataloguing those that remain. The models were sold at an auction organised by the Architectural League of New York.
By 1943, 15,000 models had been catalogued and moved to another site.
Then came fire number three which destroyed all the unpacked machines, leaving only those in the unopened crates.
Perhaps losing heart, Gilbert does little more and in 1949 fire number four starts, leaving him with just 2,000 crates undamaged.
There is a record at this time of 1,000 models being displayed in a "barn museum" in New Hampshire and three years later a new museum opens in an abandoned hospital in New Plymouth, New Hampshire, again with 1,000 models. It is reasonable to conjecture that these are from the earlier "barn" display.
By 1870 Gilbert has despaired of ever getting a museum off the ground and offers to sell the whole shooting match to the Smithsonian. The Institution officers visited Gilbert's site, take one look at the vast array of unopened, unidentified crates and walk away shaking their heads, leaving the owner resigned to try to sell off the collection piecemeal.
A series of auctions takes place. As each crate is opened a catalogue is produced and a sale announced. I have a couple of these catalogues but have been unable to locate a full set so it is impossible to estimate how many were sold.
Certainly they feature strongly in the catalogue that I have.
In 1979 Gilbert stuck a deal with patent model collector Cliff Peterssen who bought most, if not all, of the remaining crates. He has sold models ever since -- there are no left -- we got the last one about 12 years ago.
There has recently surfaced a new company selling patent models at American antique shows. The paperwork it distributes is carefully worded to suggest a tie-up with the Smithsonian Institution, although my information is that no such deal exists.
Models are being offered at outrageous prices with an "own a piece of American history" sales pitch.
These models could be remnants from the Gilbert/Peterssen collection or could have been bought piecemeal over the past few years.
Whatever the case, the whole history of American patent models is a sad, sad story of government neglect.
America is not alone in doing too little too late to preserve its heritage.
A similar lack of foresight saw the selling off for peanuts of much of the British Patent Office library as late as the 1950s. Manchester Patent office disposed of a lot of archive material a couple of years ago, though we managed to rescue a long run of sewing-machine patents for the GF archive.
Other countries probably have similar ghosts in their cupboards, too.