It looks a bit like a toy store that time forgot: here a creeping clockwork doll, there a dog-powered treadmill and here a pinball game for Victorian wizards.
But the more than 100 objects on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History aren't children's toys. They're the creative playthings of 19th-century inventors, models submitted by dreamers who wanted to patent and profit from their creations.
And thank goodness they didn't put their toys away. These are the famous and not-so-famous forebears of American industry, included in the "Patent Pending: Models of Invention" exhibit that opened yesterday.
It and a companion exhibit, "Invention and Enterprise," will continue through Nov. 16 in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the 1836 Patent Act. The act, repealed in 1880, required inventors to submit models with their patent applications, resulting in a collection of mementos of the dreams that contributed to the Industrial Revolution.
However naive they may appear to a modern eye that's jaded by the wonders of technology, the models reflect an American desire to create a brave new mechanized world. The spirit of creative tinkering lingers in the wood, cast iron, steel, brass, paper and cloth devices, many of which are still used today.
The exhibit showcases such famous inventions as an "Improved Electric Telegraph" patented by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1849, a "Vegetable Assorter" by Henry John Heinz in 1879, and a gun patented by Richard J. Gatling in 1862. Also on display is the model for the only patent ever issued to an American president: the "New and Improved Manner of Buoying Vessels Over Shoals," a contraption to boost steamboats off sandbars patented by Abraham Lincoln in 1849.
*"These are the kinds of things that are haunted by the ambitions of their makers. That's the thriller," says Roger Kennedy, museum director. "Anybody with any imagination who puts their hand on a patent model has in their hand a whole lifetime of creative dreaming. We're looking here at the objects in which was distilled all of the creative juices of a human being."
The models were selected from about 10,000 in the Smithsonian collection. The Smithsonian and the nonprofit United States Patent Model Foundation this week launched "Rekindle the Spirit," a campaign to raise $20 million to recover about 100,000 more patent models scattered across the country and to build a facility to house them.
The Old Patent Office Building once housed more than 200,000 models, but an 1877 fire destroyed about 76,000 and the majority of the rest were sold at auction by the federal government as part of an austerity program in the 1920s.
"Patent Pending: Models of Invention," located in the museum's first-floor Dibner exhibit area, shows a gadget-happy America, head over heels for machines.
The "Creeping Baby," a blue-eyed rosy-cheeked doll with bisque head, came with a wind-up key for the clockwork mechanism that moved its hands and feet, and was sold with a gown to cover its mechanical entrails.
The "Improved Dog Powered Treadmill," a gizmo intended to power light agricultural machines, had a ramp, a conveyor belt and a corral for the family husky or St. Bernard.
The "Improved Parlor Bagatelle," a pinball game sans buzzers and flashing lights, was a homemade labyrinth of wire hoops and nails.
There are models of inventions not seen today: A hybrid "Violin With Horn Attachment," a device that no doubt would have delighted RCA Victor's Dalmatian, had instead of a wooden neck a hollow metal neck that ended in a horn.
There are models of inventions seen everywhere: The "Improved Safety Feature for an Elevator," ancestor of today's streamlined push-button cars, is a tiny hand-cranked box that climbs scaffolding.
There is the grand: A "Fur-Covered Sleigh," an extravagant two-person conveyance encased in chocolate-colored fur with silvery white upholstery inside. And the prosaic: The "Washing Machine Agitator Mechanism," a hand-cranked metal apparatus that sloshes the dirty wash in a wooden pail.
The spirit of inventiveness included even the clothespin. Of the 62 clothespins patented from 1864 to 1873, eight are on display, ranging from a basic two-pronged all-wooden pin to a wire and ceramic model.
"Invention and Enterprise," located on the first floor by the pendulum, shows the critical stages in the development of 10 inventions, from idea to successful commercial product. Unlike the small models in "Patent Pending," these are often huge, some standing about 10 feet.
Included are a full-scale reproduction of a Cyrus McCormick reaper patented in 1836; a copper and brass vacuum pan that Gail Borden patented for condensing milk in 1853; and -- looking out of place among the artifacts -- ODEX I, a six-legged, camera-eyed robot manufactured in 1983.