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25 Patent Models Donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum

In 2011, Alan and Ann Rothschild donated 25 patent models to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which were featured in the exhibition Inventing a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection from November 11, 2011 through November 4, 2013. A majority of the donated models now are on public display in the museum's Luce Foundation Center for American Art, an innovative visible storage and study center on the third floor of the museum's west wing. Here, visitors can explore around 3,000 artworks from the museum's permanent collection, including 18 of these 19th-century patent models. Located at 8th and F Streets NW in Washington, DC, the American Art Museum is the nation's first national art collection and is housed in what was originally the Patent Office Building. The Patent Office displayed the models in their third-floor exhibition galleries until the end of the 19th century, along with Benjamin Franklin's printing press, Revolutionary War memorabilia, and the Declaration of Independence. The Rothschilds' generous donation marks a homecoming of sorts for the models, which were last exhibited in the building more than 100 years ago.

Museum Display Case

Highlights from the patent model collection at the American Art Museum include E. Warren Hastings's Incense Burner, which is as beautiful as it is functional. Hastings's invention is an improvement on an incense burner he patented the year before. This new design, which also doubles as an illuminator, differed from the original in that the lamp part is now meant to go at the top of the urn, rather than the base, resulting in a shorter, straighter fuse. Israel M. Rose's Sewing Machine is the only patent model housed in the Luce Foundation Center to have been put into production. Like the Incense Burner, it was an improvement on an existing design. Rose's improvement used pressure to create creases or markings in fabrics, as opposed to using a point to create indents in the fabric, which could damage the cloth. Edward Santin's Toy Bicycle Rider is an especially whimsical inclusion. Santin's toy is a spring-powered "velocipede," a generic term for human-powered vehicles with one or more wheels, where the movement of the wheels controls the movement of the driver's arms and legs as well. The driver of this model is a man, but Santin noted in his patent application that the toy is particularly amusing when the man is replaced with a monkey, dog, or other animal.

In addition to the patent models on display in the Luce Foundation Center, three patent models also can be seen in the Early America galleries on the museum's second floor.