How do you convey the concept of a telephone or sewing machine to someone—say, a patent examiner—who has never seen one before? The Patent Act of 1790 tackled this issue by requiring all patent applicants to submit a scaled-down model of their invention. This spawned a vibrant industry of professional patent model makers. They crafted hundreds of thousands of models before the patent office ran out of storage room in the 1870s and requested that inventors stop sending them.
Now these models are collectors’ items. Alan Rothschild has amassed more than 4,000, the largest private collection. He discovered patent models at an antique show in the early 1990s. “I thought, These are the craziest, most interesting things I’ve ever seen,” Rothschild recalls. “I didn’t even know they existed.” Items from his collection have been exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Curator Charles Robertson selected a mix to showcase the diversity of early inventions. “Some are so familiar-looking,” says Robertson, while others are completely opaque.
Take our quiz: Can you guess what these inventions are?
TODAY IN SLATE
The Self-Made Man
The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is
Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?
The Supreme Court, Throughout Its History, Has Been a Massive Disappointment
Why Indians in America Are Mad for India’s New Prime Minister
Now Stare. Don’t Stop.
The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
You Deserve a Pre-cation
The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.