A patent model was a scratch-built miniature model no larger than 12" by 12" by 12" (approximately 30 cm by 30 cm by 30 cm) that showed how an invention works. It was one of the most interesting early features of the United States patent system.
Since most early inventors were ordinary people without technological or legal training, it was difficult for them to submit formal patent applications which require the novel features of an invention to be described using words and a number of diagrams. Actually, the patent system then was very crude by today's standards. It was a good idea for these amateur inventors to submit a model with a brief explanation or drawing of it.
In the US, patent models were required from 1790 to 1880. The United States Congress abolished the legal requirement for them in 1870, but the U.S. Patent Office (USPTO) kept the requirement until 1880.
On July 31, 1790 inventor Samuel Hopkins of Pittsford, Vermont became the first person to be issued a patent in the United States. His patented invention was an improvement in the "making of Pot Ash by a new apparatus & process." These earliest patent law required that a working model of each invention be produced in miniature.
Some inventors still willingly submitted models at the turn of the twentieth century. In some cases, an inventor may still want to present a "working model" as an evidence to prove actual reduction to practice in an interference proceeding. In some jurisdictions patent models stayed an aid to demonstrate the operation of the invention. In applications involving genetics, samples of genetic material or DNA sequences may be required.
The models were sold off by the patent office in 1925 and were purchased by Sir Henry Wellcome, the founder of the Burroughs-Wellcome Company (now part of GlaxoSmithKline). Although he intended to establish a patent model museum, the stock market crash of 1929 damaged his fortune; the models were left in storage. After his death, the collection went through a number of ownership changes; a large portion of the collection—along with $1,000,000—was donated to the nonprofit United States Patent Model Foundation by Cliff Peterson. Rather than being put into a museum, these models were slowly sold off by the foundation. A saga of legal wrangling, purchasing, and re-selling ensued. A comparatively small number of models(4,000) are currently the property of the Rothschild Patent Museum.
- Byers, Kim. Patent Models: Icons of Innovation, USPTO, February 11, 2002. Retrieved September 11, 2010.
- Riordan, Teresa. Patent Models' Strange Odyssey, New York Times, February 18, 2002.
- A Simple Fix for the US Patent System: The Legal Requirement For Working Models, KeelyNet website. Retrieved September 12, 2010.
- PatentModel website
- Janssen, Barbara Suit. Patent Models Index: Guide to the Collections of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Contributions to History and Technology, no. 54. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2010. (A complete, full-color, 2-volume index of the more than 10,000 original patent models now housed in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.)
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