Miniatures exert full-size fascination

Science & Technology

February 24, 2002|By Teresa Riordan | Teresa Riordan,New York Times News Service

In the 1870s, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was a big tourist attraction in Washington. Its Parthenon-inspired facade, along with the U.S. Capitol, dominated the skyline. Inside, visitors roamed its grand galleries, peering into glass cases that stretched from the floor midway to the 20-foot vaulted ceilings.

The cases held patent models -- Lilliputian reproductions of inventions that ranged from Morse's telegraph to waltzing dolls and collapsible hoop skirts.

Earlier this month, after a strange and perilous odyssey that lasted nearly a century, some of those models went back on display -- at the patent office's museum in Crystal City, Va. Most of the 50 models in the exhibition are on loan from Alan Rothschild, a health-care executive in Syracuse, N.Y.

"Patent models represent a way we can visually turn back time 100-plus years," Rothschild said.

The museum, which is tucked into a glass-and-steel office tower, lacks a 19th-century ambience. But the patent models evoke their era: an "apparatus for breaking and subduing horses," a reed organ, an "earth scraper" (a plow), a coffin with a window and so on.

The patent office required that inventors submit models with their applications until 1880, when it deemed that models were no longer necessary except for perpetual motion contraptions and flying machines. After the Wright brothers demonstrated flight, the agency dropped the model requirement for flying machines; the exhibition features a 1902 model for a "blade for propellers for airships." (Anyone submitting a perpetual motion patent application would still be required to provide a proof-of-concept model.)

Although some models were crudely built by their inventors, many were made in Washington by about a dozen model-making shops for whom patent work had become a cottage industry. Some models can be perceived not only as artifacts from the history of technology but also as finely wrought examples of folk art.

Rothschild, who owns about 4,000 patent models and exhibits some of them in his house, hopes to establish a permanent museum dedicated exclusively to patent models. He is by no means the first person to have this ambition, but the nation's patent models have not exactly lived a charmed life.

"Many people have had dreams of doing something big with these, but none of these dreams has ever come true," said Robert C. Post, a senior fellow at the Dibner Institute, a science and technology historical research center in Cambridge, Mass.

In 1836, a fire destroyed the patent office and its records, including models. In 1877, a second fire destroyed 76,000 models there. By 1893, the agency was strapped for space, so it hauled about 150,000 models to an abandoned livery stable. Congress ordered them sold in 1925. Over the decades, the models were acquired by a Broadway producer, then by a group of businessmen who went bust and finally by an auctioneer.

The remaining models are scattered in public and private collections throughout the United States.

Post applauded Rothschild's efforts, noting that historians could learn from such artifacts. But he said that because the models required considerable space and maintenance, a museum would need a fat endowment.

"You would have to establish the right pitch about how these symbolize ingenuity and what we revere about our national character," Post said. "And then you would have to go to someone like Bill Gates and ask for $50 million."

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