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Hagley acquires treasure trove of patent models

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Charles F. Brown received a patent in 1960 for his innovation that improved the transport and operation of the breech-loading cannon//Photos courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library.

Charles F. Brown received a patent in 1860 for his innovation that improved the transport and operation of the breech-loading cannon//Photos courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library.

By Christi Milligan

While today’s tech-based startups scramble for footing in the marketplace, Hagley Museum & Library officials are unpacking nearly 5,000 patent models, relics from 19th century innovators who sought to modernize everything from roller skates and burial caskets to cooking utensils and weapons.

Originally owned by Alan and Ann Rothschild of New York, the models are a coup for Hagley, which now has the country’s second-largest private collection of patent models, after the Smithsonian Institution.

“It’s a wonderful glimpse of innovation in the 1800s,” said Debra Hughes, curator of collections and exhibits at Hagley, who wrote a book on patent models in the 1990s. “Each one has a story, information about the person, that industry, or the problem they were trying to solve.”

The exhibit features a number of patents received by women. Sarah Dibble of Lockport, N.Y., offered an improvement to the portable stove in 1873.

The exhibit features a number of patents received by women. Sarah Dibble of Lockport, N.Y., offered an improvement to the portable stove in 1873.

“My invention consists in a napkin-holder formed by the combination of two spring-arms provided with enlarged clamps at one end, a ring capable of sliding upon the arms, and a clasp to unite said arms and retain the ring permanently connected thereto “¦ ” wrote Willard Bundy, of his napkin-holder innovation which earned a patent in 1879.

Many of the models feature original explanations of how they work offered by their inventors, according to Hughes, who added that many of the patents are improvements on others.

“That’s why it’s so exciting to see the innovations over time,” said Hughes.

Hagley officials started their own collection in the 1950s, hoping to acquire patent models connected to DuPont’s many scientific innovations. While that never happened, Hagley did amass a collection of 870, part of their vast collection of 65,000 objects.

The patent models are on display in the Copeland Library. Hughes said she chose to showcase the diversity of the patent models, which represent 10 countries and 33 states. One common feature:  The original patent tag which included a handwritten date and patent number from the U.S. Patent Office, affixed to each model with red tape or ribbon.

William Irelan of Iowa received a patent in 1878 for his improvement to the truss bridge, which included detachable parts.

William Irelan of Iowa received a patent in 1878 for his improvement to the truss bridge, which included detachable parts.

The 1790 Patent Act gave rights to individuals to manufacture and sell their ideas without fear of being copied, according to Hagley officials. Patent applicants were required to submit a written description and drawing for their ideas as well as a three-dimensional physical model of their idea. 

Patent models were no longer required after 1880, when storage became an issue. Two fires decimated much of the original collection of the U.S. Patent Office.

Hughes estimates that it will take about three years to unbox all the models.  Each model is examined for condition, cleaned, then bar-coded and entered into a database.

Hughes, who plans to organize a much larger exhibit at Hagley’s Visitor Center, said the sheer size of the collection will give the museum the option to highlight innovations by industry. 

For now, she’s excited to unpack boxes. “Every day is like Christmas,” she said.

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