Patents And The Missing Museum

A beautiful chapter of the history of invention in the United States ended with a fire in 1880. Well, the fire took place in 1877, but the wheels of government turn slowly. For the first 90 years that patents were granted in the USA, applications were required to be accompanied by a working model – to prove that the idea works and rule out “the perpetual motion cranks”.

During this time, the US Patent Office put all of these models on display, or at least as many of them as they could. The idea was that, alongside the printed documents, people would learn from seeing the inventions in the flesh. This tremendous resource got the Patent Office nicknamed the “Temple of Invention”, and rightly so. Many of the crucial innovations of the industrial revolution were there, in miniature. From Samuel Morse’s model telegraph, through Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, to more than a thousand inventions of Thomas Edison’s, working models were to be seen in the flesh, if in the small. We can only imagine how awe-inspiring it would have been to walk through those halls.

Two fires put significant dents in this tremendous collection. First in 1836, in a fire that consumed most of the approximately 10,000 patents that had been issued to that date, models and paper copies alike. Ironically, these included the patent for the first cast-iron fire hydrant. This fire was so devastating that it led to a dramatic patent reform in that same year, and to the building of a new fireproof Patent Office.

And the “new” Patent Office building still stands today, and proudly displayed patent models until the fire that broke out inside the building in 1877. (The contents of the building weren’t fireproof.) In this second fire, brave employees saved many of the works by staying and battling the fire from inside, but the second demoralizing beatdown, and the accelerating number of patent applications, it became obvious that there just wasn’t enough space to store a model of each patentable invention, and the requirement was dropped in 1880.

A small portion of the remaining patent models were put on display in one wing of the National Portrait Gallery, housed in the Patent Office building, and I had the wonderful opportunity to see it live in the early 2000s. I have no idea if the exhibit is still there – I’m guessing it’s not. The Smithsonian owns the lion’s share of the existing models, and we imagine they are in a warehouse somewhere, like at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

A shame, because seeing a real 3D model of a thing is different from seeing line drawings. Maybe in the future, 3D CAD drawings will take their place? They’d be a lot easier to save in event of a fire.

38 thoughts on “Patents And The Missing Museum

  1. “Maybe in the future, 3D CAD drawings will take their place? They’d be a lot easier to save in event of a fire.”

    on the other hand… if no proper backups of these digital files are made, they could be erased instantly with the press of a button.

        1. I’m reminded of the tower of Babel from CCRU in which the tower teaches a man a song and the song becomes an algorithm which propagates itself through human hosts, eventually creating all languages and all data emergently over thousands of years. Pretty data-dense, but fictional of course… I think..

    1. When will people stop falling for this old idea we have that digital media lasts forever and anything on physical media is for dinosaurs and will disappear like a soap bubble? If anyone does even a cursory examination, they will find that it is the opposite. We have paper records stretching back for eons. Stone records even further. Most digital stuff has rotted in just a couple decades.

      But backups should be made/legacy media scanned and distributed off-site anyway. For sure.

  2. A big problem with the current patent system is that you don’t have to prove your idea is viable, and that it’s first to file, not first to invent. This means the big names get to patent anything and everything their thousands of engineers dreamt up. There’s no requirement to actually invest resources in all these ideas so they can file thousands and thousands.

    The current system heavily favors the status quo, stifling not only true innovation but also destroying any new competition before it can even get going. There’s no free market under the current patent system.

    1. The average patient cost about 10k$US. To protect an idea you usually want at least a few patients with varying specificity.

      All that gets you is the right to spend even more money on G.D. lawyers. Only the lawyers win that game.

      The non legally codified version of IP was the ‘secret’. Which led to lost knowledge. How do you make a Stradivarius?

      Patient trolling is just broken lawyering. Not that it’s not a problem, but it’s a symptom of a government made almost entirely of shysters. Nobody should be surprised that lawyers steal bigger and bigger slices year over year.

      BTW filing a bad patient can be stupid expensive. I know an old man who ‘invented’ a tricky household step stool with a bunch of neat tool holders and other features. Six months after filing, he got a letter from the company that had been making them for 50 years, he had just forgotten where he got the idea. It cost him even more money to get them to pull off their attack dogs. That should happen more often.

        1. Their lawyers sent him a nasty letter demanding he withdraw the application. They then asked him to pay the lawyer bill.

          To be fair, he attempted to patient their exact design. He had forgotten where the idea came from.

      1. It doesn’t have to cost $10k to file a patent. It is actually free to file (in the UK)
        What costs the money is paying someone to write the patent for you, but there is no reason that you can’t do that yourself.
        You have the option of paying the patent office to do a search for you (£100) though that is optional.

        I have a patent (for a pick-resistant lock) in process at the moment, and my total investment is <£200 (and all of that was optional fees, such as the patent search)

        1. Patient lawyering is a well paid specialty for a reason. 10k$ is the average cost of a IP lawyer filed patient (the kind you want). Good luck with your lawyering.

          One idea can’t be adequately covered by one patient. That’s not how it works. You need at least a few of varying specificity. Too specific they change a detail, to generic you trip on prior art.

        2. Also a 100 pound patent search is entirely inadequate. That’s just a keyword search.

          Patent searcher is a profession. It can take days for one search, if the idea fell into a dozen categories. The missed category can be bad outcome.

    1. That’s actually an important part of a patent: disclosing your invention to the world. Some companies eschew patenting ground breaking stuff exactly for this reason. Some companies try to circumvent this by being as vague as possible while still protecting their invention, but the idea was always for those patenting to lay out what they invented, getting protection in return. You trade secrecy for legal protection.

      It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

  3. The current us patent and trademark office has a small museum. I think it just reopened to the public after being closed for covid. It is in alexandria va. They co-curated an exhibit at one of the Smithsonian museums a few years back

  4. The Smithsonian does still exhibit their collection of patent models, just in a different museum—the National Museum of American History. I saw perhaps 20 on the ground floor a few days ago.

    SAAM (not NPG, though they share a building) does have temporary exhibits of them every few years too, which might have been what you saw. I am under the impression that their Luce Center might have some out to see, but am not sure.

    They’re really lovely to see in person. Recommended!

    1. But remember, there was an act of Congress that allows The Smithsonian to sell any thing that is donated to them. Even if the donation “contract” specifies the item can never be sold!

      1. In Winnipeg they can’t sell off the old police headquarters. It’s on land donated or sold at a low price by my family on condition it be used for public good. So if they sell it, the money reverts to my more distant cousins.

        But it was donated by the cousins, so I’m not line for the money.

        Winnipeg city hall is also on land from my family.

  5. best thing the USA could do would be have a fire and burn every patent they have, paper and digital, then close the system down for good and have a free for all. The system is now used to stop people doing many things, for a ridiculous amount of time, rather than protect someones genuine invention for a few years…

    1. How often do you have the plumber out to remove all those babies from your bath drain?

      We need patent durations returned to reasonably short periods and the process of both asserting and defending against patent claims reformed to be decided fully on the facts and not which party can afford to pay better lawyers and for longer.

      So pretty close to setting fire to the current system but not quite.

  6. When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that’s what you’re going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.

  7. I tried to imagine what it would look like had they kept it up.

    I’m picturing the Henry Ford Museum but at the scale of the Costco from Idiocracy.
    That would be awesome!

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