Saturday, August 18, 2012

Inventing a Better Mousetrap

It's easy to forget as we tap on our phones and swipe our tablets that there was a time not too long ago when coming up with a new idea meant something physical, not digital. Not that Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn aren't impressive pieces of imagination realized. Rather, inventing something new meant far more than writing code. It meant coming up with an idea, sketching it out and then actually building a prototype to convince people that it could really exist.

Originally, the Patent Act of 1790 required that anyone applying for a patent send a model of their invention to Washington. Over the next 90 years, over 200,000 were submitted. Needless to say, owing to the pace of inventing in America, space became an issue, and many models were warehoused where they were eventually destroyed in a fire. Still, there were plenty left to put on display, and it became a major tourist attraction. Just like now, there was a feeling that anyone could invent something and make a fortune.

But space was at a premium. Eventually all the models were put in storage, and the requirement to actually submit one was abolished in 1880. In 1924, Congress started an investigation as to why so much money was being spent to store these now useless artifacts. Some were returned to their inventors, museums took others and the rest were sold at auction. Sir Henry Wellcome, the founder of what is now Glaxo Smith Kline Pharmaceuticals, bought the majority and was going to set up a museum, an idea that never came to fruition. After his death, they were auctioned off again and again. Eventually they were acquired by Alan Rothschild, a businessman in upstate New York, who has tried in fits and starts to build them a permanent home.

In the meantime, parts of the 4000-piece collection are on display at various times and places. I stumbled upon one such display in a small gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Called "Inventing a Better Mousetrap" it showcases 32 models that show both the ingenuity of people with an idea, plus the model making talents that anyone who ever build a plastic airplane and had parts left over can't help but look at in awe.

For example, if you've ever sat on a swing when there was no one around to push you, you can appreciate Benjamin Schaffer's 1868 idea for an "Improvement in Swings." You push a foot pedal forward and it glides back. Or Conrad Bartling's 1888 model of his "Fence Making Machine," which shows exactly how the posts and wires get put together as you turn the crank. Or A.F. Kitchen's 1868 Rube Goldberg-like "Theft Protection Device," which consists of a door, a weighted chain and a pistol. You can imagine how it works.

Then there's Henry Rosenthal's brainstorm in 1875. Dr. Rosenthal was frustrated when he went out shooting. When the box of live birds was opened, more often than not they would just sit there as opposed to fly off as targets. According to his patent application, "the pigeons will not leave the trap when it is sprung, and have to be frightened out by shouting and throwing stones, etc., which tends to make the sportsman nervous and frequently causes him to lose his shot." His solution was a crouching cat-like doll with coils in its legs. Open the trap, pull the cord and the cat sprang towards the cage, scaring the bejesus out of the birds and into the air, with no noise to distract the guys with the guns. Today there would be an app for that.

There are many more examples, each a brilliant stroke of inspiration, brought to life in miniature. They range from Abraham Morris' "Sofa Bedstead" (an early forerunner of the sofabed), to John Chase Jr.'s "Improved Brick Pressing Machine" to George Evans' elegant "Extension Ladder." And yes, though there is doubt that anyone beat a path to their door, John Kopas and George Bauer actually did make a better "Mousetrap," and you can see how it works for yourself, complete with stuffed miniature mouse and cheese.

The exhibit will be in Washington through November. You can also see one of the other traveling versions throughout the country, or peruse the models online. If you're really into it, you can make an appointment to see the mother lode at the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum in Cazenovia, New York. But no matter how you see it, doing so reminds one that ideas can be made real, and there is no limit to what can be imagined... and built.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves drawings and models of real things. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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