Working With Working Models
Back in the 1930s my father invented and named the Chicago boot, a device to prevent movement of an automobile if the adjacent parking meter had not been paid in full. That anyone in those troubled times would worry about people chiseling nickels out of the Chicago traffic administration seems, in retrospect, slightly balmy. Yet my dad was so fascinated with his idea that he announced he was going to patent it. That put a stop to a lot of family carping because, even in a middleclass household such as ours, everyone knew that if you got a patent on something, you were on your way to easy street.
What my father had in mind was a kind of steel-jawed trap set flush into the pavement at the curb. A car entering a parking space would trigger the jaws, which would then clamp to either side of the right-front tire with a loud thwonk . What didn’t seem to worry Dad was the danger to pedestrians who might accidentally step on the thing (he dismissed this with an airy “Well, if you weighed two tons, you might have a problem”) or the possibility of tire and rim damage if the trap was improperly rigged or the driver less than perfect in maneuvering the car.
To free the impounded tire, someone had to insert correct change into the meter, thereby actuating weights and balances, levers, and springs, and ultimately the steel jaws would sink back into the street. The release was the trickiest part of the mechanism, and I am not sure it was ever perfected. All I know is that one day the miniature patent model caught hold of the wheel of my brother’s toy fire truck, and the only way he got it loose was by crying until our mother took after the model with a screwdriver.
Looking back on it all, I can’t really say why that model was built. It ended up costing a lot of money because the young man who built it had some experience with the Patent Office and said we had to have something really good to attract the attention of the “examiner”—a man, we were told, who had little patience with poorly built models.
I didn’t learn until much later that the U.S. Patent Office had not required models since 1880, when a rule that threatened to bury the office under the weight of hundreds of thousands of models was rescinded. Anyway, the model was completed and paid for, and, accompanied by a carefully drawn and lettered plan and a written description, it was sent to the Patent Office in Washington, D.C.
A recent search of the upstairs file room of the Patent Office (now across the Potomac in Crystal City, Virginia) revealed that the Chicago boot had not been awarded a patent after all. I find it hard to believe that somebody else had developed the idea first, so the only other explanation for this is that my father’s tire grabber had been found wanting in utility.
As I ranged up and down the various classes of patents that day in Crystal City, I thought about the examiner of long ago who had had little patience with poorly built models and about the business of understanding mechanical concepts through the medium of models. A boyhood spent gluing model airplanes together and a profession of museum exhibition design gave me an easy familiarity with three-dimensional representations of all kinds, and yet I wondered if I could “examine” models submitted with patent applications and perceive their virtues (or faults) at the rate of two a day, year in and year out, as had been the case back in the middle of the nineteenth century, when a handful of patent examiners were reviewing several thousand applications a year.
Who were these patent examiners, and how did they come by their capacity to review hundreds and thousands of applications, then cast considered judgments about “novelty, originality, and utility”? I could find a full biography of only one of them. But I also knew of a place where I might put myself in an examiner’s shoes and try to get a sense of what examining models was really like.
It happens that the Smithsonian Institution’s ongoing 1876 show, a small-scale re-creation of the great Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1876, contains a reproduction of the Patent Office exhibit, which had been set up by the editor of the Patent Office’s Official Gazette , a gentleman from Cincinnati named Edward H. Knight. The Smithsonian’s version, although condensed, was replete with an assemblage of ancient cases crammed with patent models pertaining to most of the thirty-three categories Knight had devised to encompass all of mankind’s inventive efforts. Here was the ideal testing ground for an amateur patent examiner such as myself.
The display cases are arranged in an open rectangle some distance from any artificial or natural lighting, so the models are but dimly seen through the glass—much as they would have been in some of the more remote reaches of the Model Gallery of the old Patent Office. Their dense arrangement on several tiers of shelving suggests a clustering according to functional relationships—governors and valve gears next to boilers; flensing knives near machinery for the manufacture of leather goods; power looms near sewing machines.
The models are generally similar in size, indicating adherence to the Patent Office rule limiting them to twelve inches on any side, and no attempt has been made to draw the eye to any particular one of them. If these models are, as one historian claims, “the most significant single group of artifacts pertinent to the history of technology in America,” their mode of presentation in this 1876 display properly ignores that. In their day the models were thought to be curious, and some of them significant, but for the most part their incredible quantity simply befogged the minds of their keepers. Before the end of the century most of them were consigned to dead storage, and in the 1920s the vast majority were sold off.
The ones I was looking at were among the relative few that had ended up in any museum. I chose to commence my exercise in “examining” with a ship’s propeller bearing an 1857 tag and the name J. Harrington. It had little of the fine workmanship that characterized other nearby models, such as the one of a brass porthole cover on the shelf below, and it lacked the obvious ingenuity of the endless-chain propeller to the right. And yet there must have been something about it that had favorably impressed a busy examiner.
A model was considered supplementary in the disclosure of an invention; ultimately the examiner awarded or denied a patent on the basis of the written description and drawings. Still, the model might tell him a lot, and with certain kinds of inventions it might tell him things more quickly than a convoluted specification could. Sometimes he would see something in a model that made an invention patentable even though it had not been adequately described, and he would ask the applicant to revise the specification accordingly. Also, one assumes that an examiner could not help being impressed by a well-designed and well-executed model. J. Harrington’s was neither, but the fact that he got his patent surely indicates the precedence the examiner save to other criteria.
After checking J. Harrington’s propeller against all the others that had been patented—and, indeed, against all the others in the world—and after a bit of give-and-take regarding the extent of its claim to novelty, the examiner passed the application, assigned the patent a number, asked a clerk to prepare forms for the signature of the commissioner, signed a wrapper for all pertinent papers, had a tag filled out and attached to the model with a loop of government red tape, placed the model with those of its class, and moved on to other matters.
It was exactly this sort of breadth of scope and attention to detail that Sen. John Ruggles had in mind in 1836 when he enumerated the qualifications needed in a patent examiner: “An efficient and just discharge of the duties, it is obvious, requires extensive scientific attainments, and a general knowledge of the arts, manufactures, and the mechanism used in every branch of business in which improvements are sought to be patented, and of the principles embraced in the ten thousand inventions patented in the United States, and of the thirty thousand patented in Europe. He must moreover possess a familiar knowledge of the statute and common law on the subject, and the judicial decisions both in England and in our own country, in patent cases.”
Moving from J. Harrington’s propeller to the feathering paddle wheel that Henry Williams patented in 1874 was akin to contrasting a rough sketch with a finished work of art. Williams left nothing to chance. The workmanship of the blades is exquisite; the mechanism by which they are turned flat upon entering the water is simply conceived and elegantly executed. Operated by a small hand crank, the model has the appearance of a wonderfully intricate toy as well as an efficient propulsive device. The novelty of Williams’s idea was splendidly clear to me, as it must have been to the examiner, though he, of course, had to measure the specification for adequate disclosure and test it against the full range of prior art.
The big-name inventors such as John Ericsson, Matthias Baldwin, George Corliss, and George Westinghouse submitted models skillfully made of first-rate materials, and these repose among the other models with a kind of nonchalance as if to affirm the superiority of the men whose names appear on their tags. The model Ericsson had built for an 1864 application is of a cannon somewhat similar in shape to a Dahlgren gun, with a heavily reinforced breach and tapering muzzle, the contours of which resemble those of a beer bottle. Ericsson’s departure was to surround the massive firing chamber with cooling fins, presumably to allow fast reloading under battle conditions while avoiding the fatal accidents that all too often occurred when fresh powder was rammed down a hot barrel. And no mere cardboard tags would do for this man. There was a silver plate attached, engraved, simply, J. ERICSSON, INVENTOR . John Ericsson knew about ensuring one’s place in the pantheon of American inventors. I recalled the story of Christian Schussele’s painting Men of Progress , which had been completed but not yet deliver d when Ericsson’s Monitor battled the Merrimack ; enthusiastically the artist added a nineteenth likeness, and Captain Ericsson thereby joined this august assemblage.
Pleased that I had been able to identify the novelty of Ericsson’s “Construction of Ordnance” so readily, I turned to a marvelous array of steam governors, their tags reading much like the name of an advertising firm: Yates, Silver, Throop, Miller, and Peavey. Miller’s model bore an uncanny resemblance to C3PO, that metal hysteric of Star Wars fame, but the most interesting-looking was H. N. Throop’s six-pointed star. Visually the Throop governor in motion would present an ever-changing configuration, star to circle and back again. And yet I could also see a technical concept of remarkable subtlety, for the design permitted the flyballs to move both radially and tangentially, an ability known today as proportional plus derivative response.
But, then, governors are not a stern test of an amateur examiner, as their shape (even Throop’s) is so closely related to their function. Much more enigmatic was the valve model submitted by Charles Rogers and the grain binder model submitted by the Burson brothers—both nearly inexplicable, at least in the absence of written descriptions. As if the inventors of the latter had been concerned that someone might see the model and fail to understand, they had included their names, engraved both on the base of the binder and on the attached plate, perhaps to facilitate a personal inquiry. Well, I didn’t understand, but the examiner must have, and that seemed good enough.
As for B. B. Bullwinkle, I believe that he received his patent in 1876 not for the novelty of his snap hook—which looks almost exactly like the snap hooks to the left and right—but rather for the magical quality of his name. Patent examiners had a serious job to do, but they were not without humor. James Perry submitted his patent application in 1858 for improvements in the looper and feeder of a sewing machine. His model included a cast brass horse, and while this design was not even mentioned in his application, the examiner surely must have noticed. One suspects, too, that the examiner whose job it was to review applications for button patents passed those of P. H. Benedict and G. W. McGill not on the basis of the buttons themselves, which are entirely alike, but because of the cards they were sewn to.
As I was examining the impressionistic wooden locomotives of Baldwin and Cathcart, the admiralty-type construction of Everson’s canalboat, and the dental impression cups of Foulke and Wuestenberg, it started to become clear that there are three basic categories of patent model. There are the full-size prototypes such as the dental impression cups, or pipe wrenches, or many of the sewing machines. (William Beach’s sewing machine needed only some cloth and an operator to become functional; O. S. Squires’s last needed only a shoe.) Then there are the abstractions, models that disclose a fundamental function but do so without reference to other parts of a machine. A classic example is a steam pump by George Westinghouse that simply shows a reciprocal motion and leaves everything else to imagination. And then, best by far to examine, there are the miniatures, oftentimes machines so complete and operational that they could well be belted to a Lilliputian system of lineshafting and used to turn out thousands of tiny products. The Seamless Shoe Manufactory of Sam Middleton was a prime case. A sturdy twelve inches in height and painted a lovely cerulean blue, the Middleton model stands ready to begin making one-inch footwear.
I was jolted back to the full-size world by some people who were having trouble understanding the objects on display. As tourists often do, they helped one another with answers to questions that most of the time had not even been asked. One young lady, having misread the patent sign as patient , spent a few breathless moments describing various objects as important medical paraphernalia, all the while pointing to pipe tongs and snap hooks.
Yet nobody thought the models were merely an amusing diversion; from conversations I overheard, people supposed them to be of considerable importance—as they are. Because, however, there are no interpretive labels (the 1876 exhibition is a period piece set in a time when the interpretive label had not been invented), the visitors could only guess at their place in history.
Thinking about their place in history, I was reminded of an idea that had been advanced at the time of the Bicentennial: to try to unite the relatively small Smithsonian collection of models with the largest private collection and then to fill a spacious exhibit hall. One could not come close to matching the Patent Office’s display in its heyday, but a major assemblage of models in all their diversity, their beauty, and their eccentricity might still inspire something of the same awe that visitors felt in the old Patent Office. After all, the surviving, slowly tarnishing models are memorials to an epoch when the phrase Yankee ingenuity was not simply a historian’s shibboleth but a fundamental fact of everyday life that could be confirmed anytime by a visit to that marvelous shrine known as the Model Gallery of the U.S. Patent Office. I recalled the words of Walt Whitman: The gallery was “crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine, or invention it ever entered into the mind of man to conceive.”