On view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is a selection of patent models from the Rothschild Collection. The exhibit, Inventing a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models, draws upon the collection of over 4,000 originals – small mock-ups once required by the US Patent Office but a practice now discontinued. Many of the models found their way to private collections like the Rothchild‘s. In the collection are two bike-related models: Sylvester Sawyer’s 1879 improvements on the bicycle [patent] and Ernest Santin’s three-wheeled ‘toy bicycle rider,’ from 1869 [patent].
Both inventions come before the emergence and popularity of the a safety bicycle, which relocated the pedals from front driving wheel to a crank driving the rear wheel. (An innovation that allowed for greater experimentation with drives and frame design.)
Beyond footnotes in bicycle history, the exhibit suggests how tangibles, like home appliances and industrial machines, were once the focus of American ingenuity; models were the concrete illustrations that brought them to life before patent examiners eyes. Today it’s a lot about ideas and a very different kind of model – algorithms – that too promise life-changing innovation albeit out of the familiar, tangible realm that lends the Rothschild collection such historic charm. Excerpts from the exhibit are viewable in a Smithsonian slideshow.