From 1790 to 1880 the United States required that anyone applying for a patent needed to present more than just a diagram, but an actual working model of their invention, and while this practice has long since been abolished, thousands of these proof-of-concept contraptions are kept on display at the Hagley Library’s Rothschild Patent Collection, the second largest collection of patent models in the world.
During the time that the patent office required the submission of physical models of any patent pending inventions some 200,000 or more projects were submitted, growing into a staggering collection of largely clockwork oddities. As the collection of half-baked inventions grew, the storage space required to store them quickly became an issue and the patent office gave up the practice in 1880, moving to the more manageable diagram system.
A select few of the leftover models were snapped up by the Smithsonian, but the remainder were sold off by at auction with the majority of them being purchased by Sir Henry Wellcome, the founder of the company that would become Glaxo Smith Kline. Wellcome left the models in storage during his lifetime, but after his death the collection changed hands a number of times before landing in the possession of Alan Rothschild.
Rothschild presented his newly found collection of thousands of models as the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum in 1998. Included in the collection are such unique inventions as a combination whip/cane, couches that come together to create a boat, and a ratty mechanical dog meant to shoo away pigeons. The museum is also filled with more mundane inventions that are nonetheless fascinating for their Victorian ingenuity such as a paper bag folding machine and a mechanical horseshoe bender.
In 2016, Rothschild selected the Hagley Museum & Library to serve as a permanent home for his collection. The museum and library now has more than 5,000 patent models in its collection. Currently, about 100 models are on display in the library. The display is open to the public and admission is free. Hagley Museum and Library is planning to open a larger exhibit on the patent models in late 2017.
Know Before You Go
You do not need to pay admission to the museum in order to view the patent models on display. Simply use the museum's north entrance at 298 Buck Road, Wilmington, DE 19807 and check in with the library receptionist. For more information, visit www.hagley.org or call (302) 658-2400.