Robertson picked this 1872 model of an electromagnetic engine for its visual appeal. "It reminds me of modern sculptures," he says.
Rothschild Patent Model Collection, Scherzi Photography
Inventors these days have it easy. Usually, all they need to do when petitioning for intellectual property rights is file the paperwork. Before 1880, though, anyone with a new product idea had to build a miniature version of it to help inspectors understand the design. A selection of those patent models are featured in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian, Inventing a Better Mousetrap, set to open in November.
Curator Charles Robertson chose about 30 examples from Alan Rothschild’s private collection of 4,000 to illustrate the “fervor of invention in the 19th century.” One of Robertson’s favorites? The all-in-one paper-bag-making machine—”a masterpiece of craftsmanship,” he says. There’s also a horseshoe-making machine, an artificial leg, a detachable, buoyant Life-Preserving State-Room for ships, and a toy called Lilliputian Wrestlers, said to afford “much amusement … to children and others.” And, of course, a better mousetrap.