From 1790 until 1870, U.S. patent law required inventors to submit actual physical models of their novel machines along with their drawings and descriptions.
These miniature testaments to innovation — “not more than twelve inches square … neatly made” — are the subject of a new exhibition at Harvard University, Patent Republic. The display draws on the collection of Susan Glendening, a New York psychoanalyst by day and fervent collector by night. Seventy-five of her models are on display in Cambridge.
The patent models have taken a strange and winding path from their original creation to Glendening’s collection. After the patent office stopped requiring models, it spent more than 50 years trying to figure out what to do with them. Before they were auctioned in 1925, mostly to Sir Henry Wellcome, a pharmaceuticals magnate, they had a variety of homes in the nation’s capital. They were stuffed anywhere space could be found in the patent office building, but eventually lost their spots.
“Crowded out of the hallways, the models were put on display in a rented building. Early in the present century a wave of economy caused that practice to be abandoned,” reads a 1925 New York Times article. “For a while the old models were stored in a leaky tunnel near the House of Representatives’ office building.”
Glendening wants to provide them with a much comfier home: her own. She plans to transform her mid-18th century house into a museum, as soon as she can round up some funding.