Vanishing Heritage

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The engaging artifacts on the preceding page are, for all their quiet simplicity, survivors of an extraordinarily harrowing career. More important, they are part of a national treasure that is now threatened and dwindling almost daily. They are patent models, and each of them is a small monument to the native genius for invention that has put its stamp on all our national development.

The models go back to the earliest days of the Republic. While the thirteen states were still coping with the ratification of the Constitution, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, together with Henry Knox and Edmund Randolph, formed the Patent Commission. George Washington signed their bill, and for the first time in history the right of an inventor to profit from his invention was recognized by law instead of an occasional royal whim. From the very first an inventor who applied for a patent was required to submit not only a drawing of his invention but also a model to show how it worked. This Jeffersonian stipulation remained in effect for eighty years and caused chaotic difficulties from the beginning.

The models came into Washington in such unexpected quantity that by 1810 Congress had to appropriate funds to purchase Blodgett’s Hotel—actually an old theatre—for storage and display space. The local citizenry took to touring the building on Sundays and admiring the products of Yankee ingenuity.

The first of many threats came to the models four years later when the British burned Washington. Dr. William Thornton, superintendent of the Patent Office, had fled the city but returned when he learned that Blodgett’s was endangered. He accosted a British colonel whose men were about to put it to the torch and with desperate, high-flown rhetoric compared his imminent burning of the models to the Turkish destruction of the library at Alexandria. The colonel was won over, and Blodgett’s was spared from the flames.

Thornton’s eloquence was the high-water mark of the government’s concern for its patent models, and the rest of their history is a catalogue of disasters. In 1836 all the collection of seven thousand models was lost when a fire levelled Blodgett’s.

A fine new patent office with vast east and west wings was designed and built, but the enormous influx of new models prevented proper cataloguing and storage. In 1870 a new law made the submission of models discretionary with the commissioner of patents, but the models kept coming in. Ten years later the stipulation was dropped completely, with the major exception of patents for flying machines. This last requirement was waived after the Wright brothers coaxed their biplane into the air in 1903, but the Patent Office still prudently demands a working model before it will issue a patent for a perpetual-motion machine.

With the flood of incoming models stopped, space still had to be found for well over 200,000 already on hand. Another fire tragically disposed of 76,000 of them in 1877, and the rest were eventually moved to a warehouse. In 1908 Congress decided to have done with the bulky things and offered them all for sale, having first given the Smithsonian Institution the chance to cull out some of the most interesting for their collections. Three thousand models brought in a forlorn total of $62.18 on the block. Some eight hundred of those have wound up safely in the Hagley Museum, part of the Du Pont museum complex in Wilmington, Delaware. The rest—155,939 of them—began a dreary round of moving from one storage dump to another. They passed through such unlikely depositories as a basement under the House of Representatives and the District of Columbia’s Male Work House and finally came to rest in an abandoned livery stable.

Here amid the pungent odors and empty stalls they stayed until 1926, when Sir Henry Wellcome—a British subject, ironically, and head of a hugely successful drug-manufacturing corporation—bought up the whole lot, probably with the idea of starting a museum. After his death his estate sold them to a Broadway producer who whipped up enough press coverage to resell them at a good profit to a group of businessmen. They had even less luck, and by 1941 the models were in a warehouse in New Rochelle, New York.

At this time their current owner, O. Rundle Gilbert, an auctioneer, got together some partners and bought up the lot fora mere $2,100, plus the accumulated storage bills of more than $11,000. The only other bidder was a man interested in selling the models to Japan for their scrap value. The models made a trip up to Garrison, New York, where they remain today in Gilbert’s barns.

Gilbert, too, had hoped to establish a museum, but after years of expenditures with no returns he has recently been selling the models piecemeal at shows and auctions for as little as twenty-five dollars. The vast majority, however, are still in his barn packed in unidentified crates that have not been opened for more than a half century.

As the pictures on the following pages show, the models deserve far more recognition than they have received. They are delightful and important relics. Some are wonders of complexity, and some are clumsy and primitive expressions of simple, lost ideas. The history of America has always been a history of experiment and invention. The men who met in Philadelphia during the sweltering summer of 1776 to experiment with an untried form of government are allied in spirit with the legion of inventors, known and unknown, who came after and met the challenges of their land and their era with ingenuity. They have left us a bright and intricate legacy. The models that they submitted in hopes of fame or of the sudden fortune that other men had enjoyed in the new country speak eloquently of both hardships and genius. Some are of towering importance, and some ludicrous in their triviality, but all are singularly American works of art. Could not a freespending Congress, always willing to appropriate the seven million dollars needed for every mile of superhighway, buy the models back before they are permanently dispersed? The $13,000-odd that Gilbert paid for his lot would build less than ten feet of interstate.

Richard F. Snow