Patented Brilliance

‘Inventing a Better Mousetrap’ displays novel ideas from the past — in miniature

December 8, 2011

A.F. Kitchen, who submitted this model for a “Theft Prevention Device,” took home security VERY seriously.

The most conniving and clever Looney Tunes characters had nothing on America’s early inventors. Even Wile E. Coyote would have admired the brutal simplicity of A.F. Kitchen’s 1868 “Theft Prevention Device”: A weighted chain attached to a door lifts when the door is opened, triggering a loaded pistol.

Of course, just because the device received a patent doesn’t mean it ever made it to production. However, its shoebox-sized replica, one of 32 items in the American Art Museum’s “Inventing a Better Mousetrap” exhibit, ensures that the diabolical security system will not be forgotten.

Inventors applying for patents between 1790 and 1880 had to submit models (usually nonfunctional) of their work, with narrative descriptions and drawings. “The country just didn’t have the engineering, scientific and technical expertise to evaluate these patents without a model, which would sort of prove that the invention would work,” says show curator Charles Robertson.

By the mid-1800s, as many as 100,000 people visited the Patent Office Building — now home to the American Art Museum — each year to gawk at the tiny contraptions. Most were about 1 cubic foot in size and created by artisans who ran nearby workshops serving patent-seekers (up to 25,000 annually). “They were all optimists,” Robertson says. “You would patent your invention and make a fortune.”

A few concepts on view, such as Abraham Morris’ 1877 “Sofa Bedstead” and George M. Evans’ 1887 “Extension Ladder,” laid the foundation for future innovations. Others, such as an unsuccessful (and expensive) 1870 attempt to improve the mousetrap, did not. But if it weren’t for the positive-thinking spirit of America’s early inventors, we might never have the chance to appreciate their bright ideas — or improvements on them — today.

It’s Personal
The show is sourced from the 4,000-piece private collection of Alan Rothschild. The inventor, who holds a patent for an electronic label system to flag expiration dates, displays hundreds of the miniatures in his Rothschild Peterson Patent Model Museum in Cazenovia, N.Y.

Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F streets NW; through Nov. 3, 2013, free; 202-633-7970. (Gallery Place)
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Marc Silver · December 7, 2011