On Tuesday, June 19, 2018, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will issue its 10 millionth utility patent (9,957 unnumbered patents were issued before starting a numbering system on July 13, 1836, so the occasion will mark the issuance of US Patent 10,000,000). One imagines that this milestone of human ingenuity exceeds even the founding fathers’ expectations when they called for a patent system in the Constitution “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” The identity of the inventor and the nature of the 10 millionth patent are closely held secrets, but we do know that the USPTO will mark the occasion with a special White House ceremony.
On the following day, Wednesday, June 20, 2018, from 1:00 to 2:30 p.m., the Lemelson Center will co-host its own public program to celebrate this milestone. “Two Centuries of American Innovation and 10 Million Patents” is co-sponsored by the USPTO and the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. The panelists will discuss the patent system’s changing role in the American economy; describe the increasing participation of women, minorities, and foreign patentees in the patent system; and predict how the nature of invention and patenting might evolve in the future. The program takes place in the museum’s Coulter Performance Plaza, First Floor West; it is free and open to the public.
- Susie Armstrong, Senior Vice President of Engineering, Qualcomm, and inventor of methods that permit your cell phone to connect to the Internet
- James West, Professor, Whiting School of Engineering, Johns Hopkins University, and inventor of the foil electret microphone (while previously at Bell Labs)
- Drew Hirshfeld, Commissioner for Patents, USPTO
- Adam Mossoff, Professor, Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University
- Moderator: Arthur Daemmrich, Director, Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Institution
To accompany the event, we thought it would be fun to consider the history of patent models, describe the Smithsonian’s collection of 10,000 models, and highlight ten of the most extraordinary patent models and prototypes currently on display at the National Museum of American History.
THE HISTORY OF PATENT MODELS
Congress passed the Patent Act of 1790 to help stimulate the development of new technologies. Between 1790 and 1880, the US Patent Office required inventors to submit both a written specification and a three-dimensional physical model with their patent applications. The model could be a miniature representation of a large invention (e.g., a printing press or plow), or a full-scale example of the manufactured product (e.g., a sewing machine or firearm). To save space, the Patent Office preferred the miniature models and asked that models not exceed one foot long in any dimension. The models did not have to actually work, but often they did.
The models of patented inventions were displayed publicly in four halls of the Patent Office in Washington, DC. Patent examiners referred to the models as a record of previous inventions, while aspiring inventors used the displays as a source of inspiration. And, as the image above illustrates, the Patent Office Museum of Models was a popular tourist attraction in Victorian-era Washington, DC. In his 1888 guidebook, Picturesque Washington, Joseph West Moore wrote:
The Museum of Models is contained in four lofty, magnificent halls, extending throughout the second story of the department building [the Patent Office]. Here are to be seen 300,000 models of patented articles, arranged in classes and subdivisions, and filling hundreds of spacious cases, all properly labeled and indexed. By means of these models one can trace the progress of every line of industry, from crude designs to the perfected machine, wonderful in construction and almost human in action. Here is the result of the profound study of countless men diligently working in all the industrial fields through many years, and it is a marvelous exhibition of human capability, and can be inspected for hours, even days, with plentiful profit and enjoyment.
The Patent Office suffered devastating fires in 1836 and 1877 and many models and patent records were lost. In 1880, the Patent Office rescinded the model requirement for new applications, citing the fire hazard and concerns of limited space. The model room remained open for another decade, but public interest eventually waned and the models were crated up and stored offsite.
THE ORIGIN OF THE MUSEUM’S COLLECTIONS
In June 1908 (110 years ago this month), the Smithsonian sent its horse-drawn wagon over to the Patent Office Building (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery) to make its first accession of 284 patent models. By the end of the summer, the Smithsonian had acquired approximately 1,000 models. In 1926, Congress passed a bill to dispose of the Patent Office’s remaining models, giving the Smithsonian first choice. Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott appointed two curators, Frederick Lewton and Carl Mitman, to make the selections. The Smithsonian ultimately retained about 10,000 patent models, and the federal government sold the rest at auction.
The National Museum of American History (NMAH) still cares for those 10,000 patent models. Exhibitions change frequently, but an informal walking tour of the museum suggests that there are approximately fifty patent models currently on display in June 2018. The models represent the leading edge of nineteenth-century technology; they also reflect the homogeneity of the white, male inventors of the period. Yet it is breathtaking to approach the models and realize that Thomas Edison or Isaac Singer had once held these objects in their hands.
PATENT MODELS AND PROTOTYPES CURRENTLY ON DISPLAY AT NMAH
Without further ado, here are ten of my favorite patent models and prototypes currently on display at NMAH:
Singer’s patented sewing machine employed a straight needle, operating in a vertical, reciprocating motion to create a lock stitch. To avoid ruinous litigation, Singer joined with Elias Howe and other sewing machine inventors to form the Sewing Machine Combination, the first patent pool.
Thomas Edison made his early reputation as an inventor by designing an improved stock ticker for the Gold & Stock Telegraph Company. The modified telegraph receiver printed a company’s alphabetical stock symbol and current stock price on a paper roll called a ticker tape.
Whiteley’s multifunction harvester reflected the mechanization of agriculture. It had a single large wheel and driver’s seat for steering the horses and manipulating the mower, reaper, and rake attachments. It was marketed under the brand name “Champion.”
The patented breech-loading rifle invented by Hartford gun-maker Christian Sharps was used widely during the Civil War and helped popularize the term “Sharps-shooters.”
Howe’s machine automated the previously labor-intensive process of making pins used to hold and stitch clothing or to shred cotton fibers. Howe’s rotary process to draw metal, sharpen a point, and form a blunt head from a single strand of wire was a breakthrough that helped reduce clothing costs and contributed to an industrializing America.
In 1837, Morse, a portrait painter, converted an artist’s canvas stretcher into a telegraph receiver that recorded a message as a wavy line on a strip of paper. His associated transmitter sent electric pulses representing letters and numbers that activated an electromagnet on the receiver. His telegraph and “Morse code” initiated near-instantaneous long-distance communications for an expanding nation.
Mariners on America’s western rivers often ran aground in shallow water. Abraham Lincoln, an attorney from Springfield, Illinois, invented a system of inflatable rubber-cloth chambers to make boats more buoyant on demand. Although his "adjustable buoyant chambers" proved impractical, Lincoln retains the distinction of being the only US President to be issued a patent.
As the “good roads” movement gathered strength at the end of the 19th century, inventors developed a host of horse-drawn machines to drag, level, and scrape dirt to build and maintain the nation's roadways.
Whitney’s cotton gin used rotating brushes and teeth to remove the seeds from cotton. His invention helped make cotton a more profitable cash crop and encouraged the intensification of southern slave labor. After an 1836 fire destroyed the Patent Office, officials re-created some of the records and models, including this 1845 reproduction.
Selden filed his patent application and submitted this model in 1879, then continuously amended the application. The long-pending patent eventually issued in 1895, placing all of the early automakers in jeopardy of infringement. Selden never manufactured his invention and instead extracted royalties from the industry; he is arguably the first “patent troll.” Henry Ford challenged and overturned the patent in 1911.
We hope you will attend “Two Centuries of American Innovation and 10 Million Patents” on Wednesday, June 20, at 1:00 p.m. at NMAH. And like the Victorian-era visitors to the Patent Office’s Museum of Models, we hope you will stroll the halls of the museum to enjoy our remarkable collection of historic patent models.
Barbara Suit Janssen, ed. Patent Model Index: Guide to the Collections of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, 2 vols. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2010), 1: v-xv.
Joseph West Moore, Picturesque Washington: Pen and Pencil Sketches (Providence: J.A. and R.A. Reid, 1888), 212-224, quotation p. 216.
United States Patent and Trademark Office, “10 Million Patents,” June 2018, https://10millionpatents.uspto.gov/.
…and the individual NMAH object records for the ten patent models, June 2018, searchable at http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections.