Preserving Precious Patents

History, On the Road, Traditions
on December 23, 2007

In his lakefront home in Cazenovia (pop. 6,481) in upstate New York, Alan Rothschild pauses on the stairway to point out two framed documents on the wall. They are applications for U.S. patents, one of them signed by President George Washington, the other by President Thomas Jefferson.

Rothschild’s home contains the world’s largest viewable collection of U.S. patent models, about 4,000 in all. For almost 100 years, from 1790 until 1880, the U.S. Patent Office required miniature working models, typically no larger than a 12-inch square, to accompany every submission. Many of those models are now in Rothschild’s museum, which was custom-built above his garage.

Rothschild, 64, is passionate about the miniature relics. “These models illustrate the innovation that shaped America today,” he says. “But they also serve as inspiration for the future.”

Rothschild’s collection includes models of motors, machines and musical instruments, furniture and communications equipment, toys and transportation devices, weapons and prosthetic limbs. “A little bit of everything you could possibly think of,” says his wife, Ann, who assists in the museum’s operation. “And some things you wouldn’t think of, either.”

“Every one of these patent models belonged to an individual with hopes and dreams of possibly making it rich, possibly changing the world,” Rothschild says. “It would be great to talk to some of these people, but the second best thing we have is holding and touching their inventions.”

Space requirements forced the U.S. government to sell its collection of patent models in 1925. More than 10,000 went to the Smithsonian Institution, which put most of them into storage, only bringing out a few at a time for public display. Thousands of others were bought by private collectors. Rothschild, a self-described “frustrated inventor,” purchased one of the large private collections in the early 1990s from Cliff Petersen. Rothschild incorporated Petersen’s name into the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum when it opened in 1998.

“I’ve been a collector my whole life, starting with a 1930 Model A Ford as a teen,” says Rothschild, who stumbled across some patent models at an antique show in 1990 and began a quest to learn more about the tiny treasures.

The museum is open for tours by appointment only. In addition to some 800 models displayed in the gallery, thousands more line long rows of shelves in Rothchild’s basement and overflow into boxes. Most of the models were created by professional model makers commissioned by individual inventors. Rothschild enthusiastically guides visitors through his collection, displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of U.S. patent history and the individual models. Each of the models has its original patent tag, attached by government-issue red twill tape. “That’s where the phrase ‘red tape’ comes from,” he explains.

Many of the models are amazingly detailed. One of Rothschild’s favorites is a life-preserving stateroom created in 1858 to sit on the deck of a ship and float if the vessel sank. Others are less flashy, but no less important.

“One of the most significant inventions in the collection—and one of the least visual—is Nelson Goodyear’s Improvement in the Manufacture of India-Rubber, the patent for the hardening of vulcanized rubber by Charles Goodyear’s younger brother,” Rothschild says, pointing to the patent. “Telephones, bowling balls, insulators, toothbrushes, combs . . . Basically, it was the beginning of the plastics industry.”

Another of Rothschild’s favorites is the Pigeon Starter. “This inventor came up with a brilliant idea of making a spring-loaded catlike animal to scare pigeons into flight,” he explains, adding that later, when the government banned pigeon shooting for sport, another enterprising inventor devised a clay disc—the “clay pigeon”—still in use today in the sport of trapshooting.

By sharing his passion for patents, Rothschild hopes to inspire a future generation of inventors. “Inventing is trying to find a solution to do something a better way or a newer way,” he says. “Everybody can be an inventor, and I believe it can be learned. I call it ‘growing inventors,’ and the country needs that.”