by Jennifer Dalton

In a country that's as obsessed with the idea of its own ingenuity as the United States, one might think that models of inventions would enjoy the ultimate in cultural prestige. As a symbol of beneficent progress, it's hard to beat the humble audacity of a 15-inch-scale model of an improvement for a machine that molds and presses bricks. However, posterity has not shown a lot of gratitude or respect to these testaments to past necessities. Collections of historic patent models have been subjected to countless indignities, but those that have survived throw a unique light on the lives and hopes of our foremothers and fathers.


The U.S. government first outlined the need for invention prototypes in 1790, and between 1834 and 1880 a working model was required with every application to the United States Patent Office. Approximately 250,000 models were accumulated by that office during the nineteenth century, but only a small percentage of those remain today.

The history of these models involves so many freak mishaps it might inspire a conspiracy theory, if there were only a motive. In the last 100 years, plans to open a patent model museum were repeatedly delayed, and tens of thousands of models never left their crates—they were shipped from one storage facility to another for decades. Several fires in different parts of the country destroyed buildings where thousands of models were stored. In 1908, Congress sold 3,000 models of inventions for $62.18; in 1926, after a New York dealer purchased 15,000 of them, Popular Science Monthly reported that old patent models were being sold on city streets for 25 cents each.


Cliff Petersen began collecting patent models in 1973. He eventually accumulated thousands, many of which of which he donated to the United States Patent Model Foundation in 1989. Recently, he decided that he could no longer properly maintain his still-large collection, so on January 23, 1996, the first of several sales of his models was held at Christie's Auction House in New York. About 250 models were offered, individually and in groups. The sale was a huge success, bringing in $342,675 (including buyers' premiums) and exceeding Christie's pre-sale "high estimate" of $285,000.

But the models themselves are the true protagonists of this story, speaking volumes about the culture and values of nineteenth-century America. From these inventions, we can get a glimpse of what aspects of daily life were most tiresome, and what hopes were most inspiring, to our great-great-great grandmothers and grandfathers. The ostensible stars of the show were two prototypes submitted by Thomas Edison: his automatic telegraph, patented in 1876, and his carbonizer for light-bulb filaments, patented in 1881. But the real fun lay in the more modest (and cheap) surprises; hiding among the expected improvements on horseshoes, watches, boat propellers, and chain-link variations were a device for improving the curves in horse' s tails, a bone-crushing machine, and a terrifying "instrument for obliterating strictures in ducts or natural passages for animal fluids.'