Creating A New Generation of American Ingenuity


Cazenovia, N.Y. – Alan Rothschild is passionate about patent models, the miniature scale pieces that were once a requirement for any inventor seeking a patent. His love for these historically significant relics is so strong that he transformed the lakefront home that he shared with his wife, Ann, and their dog, Moxy, in this upstate New York village into a museum.

From a basement storeroom to the second floor area where he showcases the items for visitors by appointment only, Rothschild’s home is a shrine to what he calls works of art that represent America’s heritage of ingenuity. With more than 4,000 pieces, Rothschild has what he believes is the largest private collection of patent models on public display. There are more patent models visible at the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum ( than at the Smithsonian.

An inventor himself- he has two patents for labeling technology – Rothschild is committed to showcasing the innovation of the nation’s past and fostering a new generation of American ingenuity. He is selling a portion of his collection to fund endowments, contests and educational programs for prospective inventors.

“These models illustrate the innovation that shaped what America is today, but they also serve as an inspiration for the future,” the 65-year-old Rothschild said. “The U.S. has always been known for our inventiveness, for our new products. Now, there are more U.S. patents issued to people in foreign countries than to Americans. I want to help motivate people in our country to be inventive again.”

Rothschild’s plan is to develop a traveling exhibit of patent models that will appear at museums nationwide. He says he will use a portion of the proceeds from the patent models that he sells to fund endowments for inventors who have a patent-worthy idea but lack the funding and knowledge to secure a patent. Rothschild also plans to establish workshops to help would-be inventors navigate the patent process and spur creative thinking through special programs in elementary schools.

Rothschild’s second floor museum displays only a fraction of his entire collection. Most of these precious artifacts are stored on long rows of shelves in his basement, and many remain in their original packing materials, untouched by human hands for decades. Several of the models in the collection predate the patent numbering system that debuted in 1836. Some of Rothschild’s collection is showcased at Euro Disney outside of Paris, and at the Smithsonian.

Rothschild can pick up any piece in his museum and give visitors a synopsis of its’ history. Exploring the museum with the charismatic inventor and entrepreneur is comparable to earning an honorary degree in 19th century American innovation.

From 1790 to 1880, to gain a patent, people were required to submit a working model of their invention to the U.S. Patent Office. They were limited to no larger than 12 square inches, and they were accompanied with paperwork and diagrams explaining the invention’s purpose, construction and operation. More than 200,000 models were submitted during this time.

Fires at the patent office in 1836 and 1877 destroyed tens of thousands of the models. Eventually, the agency was strapped for space and Congress ordered the patent models to be sold in 1925.

The Smithsonian acquired some of the models. Others were returned to the inventors’ families or destroyed. The remaining lot was sold to Sir Henry Wellcome, founder the Glaxo Wellcome pharmaceutical company (which is now called GlaxoSmithKline), who intended to establish a patent model museum. But he abandoned those plans after the 1929 stock market crash.

In subsequent years, private collectors bought the models. Cliff Petersen was one of them. He bought 35,000 that were stored in 800 crates. Rothschild bought a portion of Petersen’s collection in the early 1990s. Over time, Rothschild has added other collections, including all 82 models from a patent museum in Fort Smith, Ark.

Rothschild’s interest in American ingenuity stems from his family. His father, the late Gustave Rothschild, opened a drugstore in Syracuse in 1926. With his wife Rose, he operated four drugstores in the Syracuse area. Alan Rothschild and his two older brothers followed in their father’s footsteps and became pharmacists. Alan, though, grew bored of the profession and opened a medical supply company that he still owns, along with a real estate development firm that builds medical offices.

Rothschild’s love for collecting stems to his teen-age years, when he bought and restored a 1930 Model-A Ford, which is parked in the garage of his home overlooking Cazenovia Lake. He maintained his interest in restoring antique cars and, in college, developed a fondness for historic apothecary items. Rothschild eventually opened an apothecary museum of remedies and elixirs, which recreated an early 1900s pharmacy in a building that originally housed one of his father’s drugstores. That collection is now housed at the Museum of Science and Technology in Syracuse.

Rothschild turned his attention to patent models after seeing a small display at an antiques show.

“I had never heard of them, and I was fascinated,” he said. “I started researching their history, and then bought a few here and there. Then I bought a portion of Cliff Petersen’s collection, and over the years I have added more from other private collectors.”

Many of the models look like collectible miniatures. A majority were made in Washington by model-making shops for whom patent work became a cottage industry. Some models can be perceived as not only artifacts from the history of technology but also as finely wrought examples of folk art.

“You can put almost all inventions into two categories – simple inventions by a lay person and more technical inventions that have to do with industry,” Rothschild said. “Ninety-nine percent of them are by people who worked in that industry.

“All of these models are one of a kind,” Rothschild said. “Invention is what made this country what it is today. Since all of these models revolve around the Industrial Revolution, there’s tremendous history to all of them.”

Some made their sole mark on history as intriguing pieces of art with an unknown fate, such as T.F. Engelbrecht’s 1863 model of an all-brass artificial leg that was marketed to maimed Civil War veterans and Thaddeus H. Spear’s intricate wooden contraption called “A Machine For Making Toy Torpedoes.”

Some models seem impractical, like the array of marine safety devices introduced long before the Titanic sank. Josiah Foster of Sandwich, Mass. received a patent for an elegant velvet sofa that transformed into an emergency lifeboat with oars. One of Rothschild’s favorite is the life-preserving state room for navigable vessels created in 1858 by Henry Hallock of Brookhaven, N.Y. Reminiscent of a prop from “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.” It was designed to sit on the deck and float if the ship sank.

“If that is does not make you think of Jules Verne (who wrote 20,000 League), I don’t know what does,” Rothschild said.

Other models resulted in inventions that revolutionized their respective industry, like a slab of hardened vulcanized rubber made by Nelson Goodyear in 1851 and a mass of gears and numbered buttons that composed the ticket printing and recording machine of 1878, a forerunner to the cash register.

Patent #226,827 was issued to Moses Bensinger and Benjamin F. Goodrich in 1880. Bensinger was president of the Brunswick Co., regarded as the leader in the American billiard industry; and Goodrich was founder of the B.F. Goodrich Co., one of the world’s most prominent rubber product manufacturers. Their patent for a vulcanized rubber cushion for billiard tables was adopted as an industry standard that is still in use today.

Just as the name Goodrich is associated with rubber, the Steinway family is linked with piano building. Patent #204,111 was issued to C.F. Theodore Steinway of New York City in 1878 for “Improvement in Capodastro Frames for Piano-Fortes.” Simply put, the innovation nearly doubled the string tension which helped with the tuning.

“The capodastro bar is still part of every Steinway grand piano and has been copied by practically every other piano maker since the patent expired,” Rothschild said. “It is standard in every piano made around the world.”

Inventors can be ingenious and whimsical, as certain pieces in Rothschild’s collection demonstrate. In 1875, Dr. Henry A. Rosenthal, of Brooklyn constructed a wood model of a cat-like body with fake fur, a glass eye and a spring. He called it the pigeon-starter.

“It was created during a time when men shot pigeons for sport,” Rothschild said. “The caged birds were released from underground traps. But the pigeons apparently did not understand their role, and quite often they would not fly into the air.

“With Dr. Rosenthal’s model, you locked the cat-like object into a crouching position. When it was time, you pulled on the cord, and the cat would shoot up and make a noise, frightening the pigeons and causing them to fly away.”

Dr. Rosenthal’s invention may have been effective, but it wasn’t long before society grew uneasy about a sport that involved blasting live pigeons from the sky.

“Even though the pigeon starter is one of the most crude models in my collection, it is historically significant,” Rothschild said. “It was patented just before another invention that replaced the use of live birds for target shooting. Clay disks – what we know as clay pigeons – were introduced and resulted in the present-day sport of trapshooting.”

There are models at the museum which illustrate the evolution of how inventors worked to simplify household chores. During the 1800s, washing clothes was a time-consuming and backbreaking task.

“Washing clothes was so labor intensive that it was typically done just once a week, on what was known as Blue Monday,” Rothschild explained. “Women carried, heated and emptied the water used for washing and rinsing.

“There was no running water, and fire was the only source of heat,” he added. “Boiling, washing and rinsing one load used about 50 gallons (400 pounds) of water that was drawn from a well or a stream.”

Thousands of patents were issued for washing machines during the 19th century, but most were never produced. The earliest of these imitated the motion of the human hand on a washboard, rubbing clothes between two surfaces, each ribbed like a washboard. Of the several washing machines in Rothschild’s collection, the one devised in 1869 by J.B. Woolsley of Bloomfield, Iowa is the most noteworthy, Rothschild says.

“It was designed to agitate the clothes, and it was equipped with a flue (or pipe) which was hooked to the chimney in the house to serve as a vent,” Rothschild explained. “It may have been the first washing machine that could heat the water inside the tub.

“Out of all the washing machines in my collection, Woolsley’s patent is the one that is most reflective of what we have today,” he added. “It’s concept is similar to the modern-day washing machine, except that it is not powered by electricity.”

In the early 19th century, every patent was signed by the president and the secretary of state, and patent papers were issued to the inventor. Display boxes encased in glass containing models and their corresponding papers signed by prominent historical figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson adorn the walls of the staircase leading to Rothschild’s second floor museum.

Most models are a fraction of the invention’s actual size. Not all, though. The smallest item in Rothschild’s collection is a safety pin that is actual size. Like all models, the patent number and description is attached to the pin with a piece of red string. This, Rothschild says, is where the expression “government red tape” was born.

Rothschild has chosen not to transform the patents he has received into marketable products. His first patent is related to an intelligent label that can warn consumers about expired drugs. The other patent Rothschild’s most recent patent is for a “smart” vehicle inspection sticker that flashes an LED inside the vehicle for 30 days prior to the sticker’s expiration to warn the owner. A second LED on the front of the inspection sticker begins flashing 30 days after the expiration date to alert police that the car has not been inspected.

Instead of marketing his own products, Rothschild is committed to preserving patent models, educating the public about their historical significance and inspiring future inventors to continue America’s legacy of innovation.

Just as he sold a rare Bentley that he restored to fund the purchase of Petersen’s collection, Rothschild is selling one-fourth of his own stockpile of patent models to bring his blueprint of endowments, workshops and programs to spur future inventions to life.

“The ingenuity of inventors from the 19th century is visible through the patent models. They were made more than 125 years ago, but many of them still work,” Rothschild said. “The people are long gone, but their legacy lives because of what they created. My mission is to help a new generation of inventors establish their own legacy and start a new period of American ingenuity.”

Jeff Louderback is an American writer who covers news about business and economy