Models of Invention
Patent models represent the entrepreneurial spirit and innovative horsepower of human invention that fueled the Industrial Revolution and built America into an industrial giant. Hagley has become home to the world’s largest private collection of these fascinating miniature creations. The Rothschild Patent Model Collection, which Hagley acquired from Alan and Ann Rothschild, added more than 4,000 models to Hagley’s existing collection. At Hagley, these models will be used to inspire the innovator in everyone.
You can see a display of about 100 of these models in Hagley's Library. The display includes models from both Hagley's collections and the Rothschilds collection. The display is free and open during the library's operating hours: Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and the second Saturday of the month, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The Library is not part of Hagley's visitor tours. To visit the Library, use Hagley's Buck Road East entrance off Route 100 in Wilmington, DE. GPS: 298 Buck Road, Wilmington, DE 19807.
A brief history of patent models
The American patent system was part of the foundation of American democracy and was created through the first article of the U. S. Constitution. Established in 1790, the patent process was considered so important that until 1836, every patent issued was signed by the president of the United States. The earliest notable patents issued include one from E. I. du Pont in 1804 for the improved manufacture of gunpowder, though that patent is not included in Hagley’s expanded collection.
From the beginning, all patent applicants were required to submit a written description of the invention or improvement, drawings, and a model of the invention. The U. S. patent system was the only one in the world to require patent models.
From the earliest days of the patent system, the models received significant public attention. Following a catastrophic fire in 1836, plans for a new patent office were required to include galleries for patent models. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people a year turned out to see the latest and greatest inventions in these galleries.
In 1877, another catastrophic fire destroyed many more models. The government revoked the model required in 1880 and in 1893 removed the models from the patent office and placed them in storage. By 1925, the government no longer wanted to pay to store America’s unique invention heritage. Some models were returned to descendants of the inventors; 3,500 went to the Smithsonian, and the rest were auctioned.
The patent office’s collection passed through a series of hands in the twentieth century, diminishing in size each time until Alan and Ann Rothschild acquired it in the mid-1990s. The Rothschilds spent the next twenty years refining the collection and sharing it through a museum in their home, a website, and a series of exhibitions. Just as the Rothschilds decided to retire from the patent model museum business, they crossed paths with Hagley board member Augustus I. duPont, and conversations began about Hagley providing a home for the collection and carrying on their vision of sharing the models with the world to inspire innovation. The result was the delivery in October of 900 boxes of patent models to Hagley’s Hall of Records.
Where to from here?
Each model is being carefully unpacked, measured, photographed, numbered, assessed for condition, and catalogued. As groups of records are completed, they will be added to the online collections database accessible through Hagley’s website.
You can see a large number of the models in the beautifully illustrated new book, Inventing a Better Mousetrap, by Alan and Ann Rothschild, available in the Hagley Store.