Unwanted Treasures Of The Patent Office

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This folly was not discovered until 1907, when the owners of the Union Building attempted to raise the rent and thus precipitated a congressional investigation. The annual number of visitors, it came out, was none. In retaliation, without thought as to why there were no visitors, Congress in 1908 decided to sell all the models, first giving the Smithsonian Institution six months to pick out those it wanted. The Smithsonian managed to find only 1,061 worth keeping. At a public auction, 3,000 models of inventions that had failed to receive patents were sold for $62.18.

During the next two decades those remaining unsold, amounting to 155,939, were carted about repeatedly—back to the Patent Office, to a leaky basement under the House of Representatives, to the basement of the District of Columbia’s Male Work House, and at last to an abandoned livery stable. Finally, in a congressional economy wave in 1925, it was found that more than $200,000 had been spent for storage and moving since 1884; rather than squander any more money on museums, Congress again elected to sell. An act was passed on February 13, 1925, appropriating $10,000 for the sale and creating a three-member commission to again select important models for the Smithsonian and other recognized museums.

By late November, the Smithsonian had selected about 2,500, and 2,600 more were taken either by other museums or by inventors. Another 50,000, which had been unpacked, so crammed the floor space that an immediate auction was ordered, and on December 3, 1925, they went for $1,550. Thomas E. Robertson, patent commissioner, reported to Congress that “this was thought to be a good figure.”

The buyer of the 50,000 models was never officially identified; the General Supply Committee kept scanty records. Circumstances, however, point to Sir Henry Wellcome, who in 1926 came back to acquire the remaining 125,000, cases and all, unopened, without even the formality of a public auction. He paid $6,540.

Sir Henry began life in Wisconsin in frontier days—his earliest memories were of holding the basin while his doctor-uncle dressed the wounds of pioneers who had been battling Indians—but he had become a British subject during World War I. He founded Burroughs, Wellcome & Co., a large and successful drug house, and was knighted by George V for his services to medicine and pharmaceutics. Given to offbeat causes (he once endowed a trust to provide translations of textbooks for Chinese medical students), Sir Henry decided to start a patent-model museum and to store his new acquisitions at the Burroughs, Wellcome plant in Tuckahoe, New York, until he could get around to building it.

When Sir Henry died ten years later, at the age of 82, the models were still there, packed in their original cases, unopened. The trustees of his estate, after lengthy consideration of what to do with them, finally decided to sell. It took them two years, but they got their price—$50,000.

Their customer was Crosby Gaige, Broadway producer and gourmet, whose collections to date had been limited to books on eating and cooking and to laboratory equipment for making his own tooth paste.

Gaige brought the models to Rockefeller Center with the kind of fanfare usually reserved for the circus. Without delay he cracked open the first few cases. Then, on August 8, 1938, he managed to entice several representatives of the press into being present while an expert locksmith twirled the dial of a model crystallized-iron safe.

The tumblers clicked; the door swung open. Inside was a paper. The writing was faint, but the signature was legible—A. Lincoln. The paper was a petition for a patent on a flatboat with air chambers for floating it over shoals, invented by Lincoln in 1849. Flash bulbs popped and the models were page one news.

Within a few more days, Gaige plucked from the cases the original model of the Gatling gun, the first dentist’s chair, and the first egg beater (Timothy Earle, 1866). He also had a long list of bedazzled customers, and by early October, 1938, he and his silent partner, Douglas G. Hertz (fight manager, movie actor, mule trader, survivor of the Lusitania, and former owner of the New York Yankees football team), had retired with a neat profit from speculation in Americana by selling out to a group of businessmen for $75,000. The Lincoln paper, its purpose served, disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived.

The new owners also had money-making ideas but lacked Gaige’s theatrical imagination. They incorporated under the name of American Patent Models and unpacked 25,000 models, a tiny part of the collection, amid mutterings to the press that it was an outrage the government had ever sold them. The vast remainder, about 2,600 full cases, was shipped to the Neptune Storage Warehouse in New Rochelle, New York. Some 500 of the unpacked models were then fitted into special crates and sent out in three separate caravans across the country, to be displayed in department stores and other showrooms for a fee. The rest were kept at Rockefeller Center.