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10 Apr 2009

Thirty thousand little pieces of history – This entry is probably going to seem like it’s coming out of the blue, but I made an offhand comment a while back to some friends of mine and I owe them a story. One of them has threatened me with bodily harm if I don’t cough it up, so in the interest of self-preservation, I’ve decided to take a walk down memory lane. I figured if I was going to get into it, I might as well write it down here, and maybe some of my other readers might enjoy it as well.

“History that I could see and feel was passing through my hands each day.”

The story I am about to tell you is a story of the U.S. Patent Office—at least, it’s a story of one part of the legacy of the U.S. Patent Office, and the very small part I played in its long, slow disintegration. There’s a lot of history involved, and it took a bit of research to dig up the various pieces of the puzzle, but I’m going to save that for later and start with what I remember, letting you approach the story the same way I did: like putting together a puzzle for which I had never had all the pieces in the first place, and even those pieces I did have were faded with age.

My part in this story begins and ends in the summer of 1990. It was almost twenty years ago, yet I can still smell the straw we used to pack the crates. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like I said, it was summer, and being your average American high school student, I was looking for a summer job. Having tired of the local Burger King, I was looking for a job that wouldn't have me coming home late at night, my hair and clothes saturated with the peculiar smell of fry grease. I saw an ad in the paper looking for help. I wish I could remember exactly what the ad said, but a guy over in Garrison was looking for some help packing up some old models that had been submitted to the patent office long ago, back when a model was required to obtain a patent. Apparently there were thousands of models gathering dust in an old storehouse, and they needed to be packed in crates to be shipped to parts unknown—unknown to me, at any rate.

I doubt that the ad said all of this, but I learned all of it later when I went to inquire about the job. The man who was interviewing applicants was quite friendly, and he hired me on the spot. He also asked if I knew anyone else who might want to help as well. My girlfriend at the time was looking for a summer job, so I drafted her into service. When my employer saw us together, he said we looked like an "All-American couple." I wasn't really sure what he meant, but I remember thinking that he took us for hicks.

Maybe we were, to some people. To others, though, we were city slickers. On the way there one day we stopped at a small gas station to fill up the tank, and I got out of the car and asked the two guys loafing around if I needed to pay first—that was how it was done where we lived. One of them straightened up a little, affected a country drawl, and said, “Naw, we trust ya to do the right thing.” He took a toothpick out of his mouth and nodded toward the building behind him. “B’sides, Pa’s up on the roof with a shotgun just in case ya don’t.” I saw him glance at his friend, or maybe it was his brother, and the two of them grinned like idiots. I didn’t look up at the roof; I knew there wouldn’t be anyone up there with a shotgun. I pumped my gas, paid my money, and left without a backward glance. This has nothing to do with the rest of the story, of course, but it’s a part of that summer and that experience, and for some reason the memory sticks in my mind like a nail rusted into a wooden board.

We ended up working with another teenage couple from Peekskill, I believe it was. Like us, they were looking for a little extra cash during the summer. The guy who hired us took us down to the large room in the Garrison Inn that held the models. I can still remember that place with all of my senses: a refreshing coolness after the summer heat, pale sunlight filtering in through high casement windows, the smell and taste of dust in the air, and row upon row of shelves stacked with the physical manifestations of strange and wonderful ideas sprung from the minds of American inventors over a century ago. I cannot now remember a single model of what must have been thousands that I handled, but I do remember the feeling of joy and wonder when I came across some particularly ingenious device, or a device that I recognized as a precursor of a modern gadget. I know that sense memories last much longer, but I wish I could recall even a few of the many models that passed through my hands.

There was no rhyme or reason to our packing. The models may have had tags—I really don’t remember anything about that—but I do recall that we didn’t keep any sort of inventory or records about which models went into which crates. We just took the models into the barn, where I climbed up into the loft and tossed down bales of straw. Then we would cut open the bales and stuff the crates with the straw. A layer of carefully placed models, more straw, another row of models, more straw, and on and on until we reached the top and closed up the crate. A patent model parfait. That’s how our days went, and I wasn’t complaining. Sure, the room with row upon row of models was a bit dusty for my taste, but that was my only complaint, and a minor one at that. History that I could see and feel was passing through my hands each day—how could I complain?

I can’t recall much about our employer, only that he was an old man (I was in high school, so “old” meant anything over forty) with gray hair, and that his son, who was older than we were, often came to the inn. Both father and son seemed very excited about what we were doing, and I remember they showed me a video they had taken. There was a school bus in front of the inn, full of children, and they were all singing the national anthem. My employer (or maybe it was his son) said that the kids had been there on a school trip, and when they boarded the bus to leave they spontaneously broke into The Star-Spangled Banner. He was so moved that he grabbed his video camera and started recording. I remember thinking that it was a bit surreal, and later I wondered if it wasn’t more of a Pavlovian response than an upwelling of patriotic sentiment (and as I write this now, I find myself wondering if there is really any difference between the two at that age). Cynicism aside, seeing all those models must have triggered something in those children. They knew they were seeing an important part of American history, so they responded with the most American sentiment they could muster.

This is the sum of my memories of that summer. I don’t remember how long we worked, only that it was certainly not all summer, and it probably wasn’t more than a few weeks at most. Most of what I remember are sense memories that are hard to put into words, like trying to describe the memory of a favorite food being cooked for you as a child. I can feel them, but when I try to seize them and bring them into the clear light of day, they scurry off into the darkened recesses of my mind. The truth is, all I remember about those weeks in the summer of 1990 are a few scattered episodes that I have pasted together as best as I can.

The last of these episodes happened later, when I was away at university. I was talking on the phone with my mother when she mentioned seeing something in the paper about the man we had worked for that summer. That he was being brought up on criminal charges, or something to that effect. “Fraud” is the word that sticks out in my mind, but I can’t really be sure. At any rate, I remember thinking at the time that it couldn’t be true. The man we worked for had been so nice and genuine. It must have been a misunderstanding. Later, I contemplated that most con-men are nice and genuine, so perhaps anything was possible. But I still didn’t want to believe it was true—if only because I didn’t like the idea that I had possibly helped con someone out of something.

It was this jumble of faint memories that caused me to reply to a post on a message board I frequent. The post had mentioned patents in some way, and I made an offhand, joking comment about how I had helped defraud the U.S. Patent Office in my youth. Naturally, such a statement led to calls for the full story, and I realized then that all I had was a collection of partial and possibly unreliable memories. In fact, I had no idea what had happened. So I set out on the trail of the story. It took a little while to get going, because at the time I didn’t even remember the name of the town we had worked in. I knew it ended with “-son,” but there are a lot of towns like that around. After a bit of Googling and talking with my parents, though, I stumbled across the name O. Rundle Gilbert and an article from American Heritage Magazine that talked of his collection of patent models at his home in Garrison. As I read through the article, I noticed that the dates were all quite old, and Gilbert was spoken of as if he were still alive. Then I looked at the top of the page and saw the article’s original print date: February 1958. In fact, Gilbert died in 1989, a year before I arrived at the Garrison Inn (his brief obituary in the New York Times says nothing of the patent models).

Once I found this first piece of the puzzle, the others followed in short order. I worked my way forward in time to 1990, then back again through history to the time when the models left the U.S. Patent Office. As it turns out, the models had been out of the hands of the U.S. Patent Office for 65 years by the time I saw them that summer. I found this date on the “History of Patent Models” page of the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum website, which has a very handy timeline that runs through 2004. Most importantly for me, it told the history of some of the patent models from the time they left the government’s hands to the time they passed through my hands. It turns out that the government auctioned off the majority of the models in 1925, and they were bought by a Sir Henry Wellcome. Wellcome died in 1936 and the models came into the possession of a group called American Patent Models, Inc. This group went bankrupt in 1940, and that’s where O. Rundle Gilbert and Garrison entered the scene. Gilbert, an auctioneer, purchased the models and moved them to his home in Garrison, New York. Over the years, Gilbert auctioned off a number of models (the Smithsonian, for example, has a record of a 1978 auction of 1,000 models), but it wasn’t until 1979 that he was able to sell off what remained of the collection to a man named Cliff Petersen.

The timeline doesn’t go into detail about what happened between then and 1990, but the New York Times comes to the rescue: an article from September 5, 1982, entitled “Miniature Models for Inventions,” says that after Petersen acquired the models from Gilbert, he bought the Garrison Inn rather than ship all the models to his home in California. At the time the article was written, the employees were still in the middle of unpacking and processing the models, no doubt putting them up on the shelves from which I would take them down and pack them once again eight years later. Petersen had acquired 35,000 patent models from Gilbert, and in 1990 he donated 30,000 of those (along with one million dollars) to the United States Patent Model Foundation.

That is the story, more or less, of how the patent models went from the government’s hands to mine, but I suppose I should go even further back and fill in, at least roughly, the rest of the story. For a period of ninety years, from 1790 to 1880, the U.S. Patent Office required the submission of models with patent applications. By 1880, the government had acquired some 200,000 patent models, and it had become apparent that continuing to require models would be impractical. Can you imagine it, though? 200,000 models! Perhaps the greatest museum of American ingenuity and weirdness (you can, after all, apply for a patent for anything) that ever existed, the likes of which we will never see again:

The Model Room occupied the whole of the third floor of the Patent Office Building, immediately under the roof, and consisted of four grand halls, opening into each other, and affording a promenade of about one-fourth of a mile around the four sides of a quadrangle. These magnificent halls were fitted up with tiers of cases, the room being sufficiently high for two tiers, one above the other. Each case was eight feet in height by from sixteen to twenty feet in length. The cases were made of white pine, with glass sides and ends. They were so placed that there was sufficient room around each case to give easy access to them both for the casual visitor and for inventors and examiners. The cases could be opened and their contents inspected at any time in the immediate presence of an employee of the Patent Office. This great gallery was visited yearly by thousands of people, both for profit and pleasure. It contained about 200,000 models of American inventions, besides many curiosities and mementoes, specimens of home manufacture, and priceless treasures of deep historic interest.

This quote is from The Patent Office Pony; A History of the Early Patent Office, the complete text of which can be found online. This description is from shortly before the last Patent Office fire in 1877, which destroyed 87,000 models (the Rothschild Petersen Museum website says 76,000). The first fire in 1836 had destroyed nearly everything the Patent Office housed, although at that time there hadn’t been nearly as many models. Still, it pains me to think just how much history we lost in those fires.

In 1908, when the government decided to try to auction off the models, there were apparently about 150,000 left (some of the models destroyed in the fires had been restored). Over the years, small numbers of models were sold and auctioned, and when Cliff Petersen finally got his collection from Gilbert, they numbered only 35,000. Of those, I helped pack up the 30,000 that went to the United States Patent Model Foundation. But what is the USPMF? They have no website—the closest they come to a web presence is a page on eBay. But that page mentions the next clue in the puzzle: Invent America! As soon as I saw those words, it clicked. That was the organization I had worked for, the organization that had invited schoolchildren to come look at the patent models collected in the Garrison Inn. I suspected that J. Morgan Greene, the chairman of the Foundation and of Invent America!, was the man I had worked for that summer.

And so we come to the “fraud” I mentioned earlier. After doing some digging through newspaper articles from shortly after 1990, I found two articles that dealt with Invent America! and its woes (neither are available for free online, so I can’t link to them). The dam apparently broke in April 1993 when the ABC program 20/20 did an investigative report on the organization. A Washington Post article from April 17 reported that six women who had worked for the organization had accused Greene of sexual harassment, and an article in Education Week from April 28 focused on a controversy surrounding some of the contest winners, who had not received their prizes six months after winning the competition (just in case you didn’t visit the website above, Invent America! holds a yearly competition for schoolchildren). Although unrelated to the 20/20 scandal, an article on from 2006 reports that Petersen sued Greene in 1997 in an attempt to get his collection back, apparently unhappy about the USPMF selling off the models on eBay. The suit was unsuccessful.

So that’s what happened. Or, at least, that’s what was reported in the news. I thought about getting a transcript for the 20/20 program mentioned in the Washington Post and Education Week, but they wanted $20 for it. I did debate it for a while, thinking that the transcript might be the final piece of the puzzle, and having it I would finally bring this journey to an end. But I realized that everything I needed to know was in those two articles, and having the transcript wasn’t going to get me any closer to the truth, whatever that might be. If this conclusion seems a little anti-climactic, well, now you know how I felt when I reached the end of the trail and found myself looking back over the slow disintegration of the collection of models that first left the government in 1908 and were now being sold by the USPMF on a pretty crappy eBay page. At one time, the U.S. Patent Office housed 200,000 models in a grand hall. When the government decided it didn’t want to deal with the models anymore, these pieces of history passed through the hands of numerous people, some who just wanted to make money off them, others who dreamed of picking up where the government had left off and setting up a patent model museum. And as the models passed from hand to hand, dreamer to dreamer, their number dwindled. The number collected by Alan Rothschild (only a fraction of which are on display in his museum) is a mere 4,000. Then again, the models are not gone—they are scattered across the country, many of them probably safe in the hands of collectors who treasure them, and perhaps awaiting the day when they will be brought back together again.

I don’t really know what to think about my small, rather insignificant part in all this. As it turns out, I wasn’t part of any defrauding of the U.S. Patent Office, and whatever may have happened with Greene and the USPMF later on, I have no doubt that his intentions were sincere at the start. In the end, I was just one of the many in a long line of hired hands throughout the years who helped put the models into boxes or take them back out again. I wasn’t ignorant of the significance of what I witnessed during those few weeks, and I continue to treasure the tattered shreds of memory that remain to me, but I can’t help wishing I had taken the time back then to do more research, or to write about what I saw and handled each day, or to take pictures. Why didn’t I do any of that? Well, I guess I was just a kid in high school who was looking to make a little extra summer cash. But I suppose it is rare to truly understand a brush with history when it is happening. Now, nearly twenty years later, it means something more to me, and that will have to be enough.

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