Inventing a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection

November 11, 2011 – November 4, 2013

Smithsonian American Art Museum
8th and F Streets, NW
Washington, DC

2nd Floor, South, Allan J. and Reda R. Riley Gallery Floor Plan

Thirty-two models illustrate the variety of 19th-century patented inventions submitted by inventors from across the United States. All of the models on view were originally displayed in large cases in the grand galleries on the third floor of the building, which originally housed the Patent Office. Nineteenth-century American patent law required the submission and public display of a model with each patent application; these scale models in miniature illustrate not only the imaginative fervor of the era but also the amazing craftsmanship required to fabricate these often intricate works of art.

The models are grouped by category, including domestic life, leisure, agriculture, and machinery; they are complemented by drawings, illustrations, a rare early patent signed by George Washington, and a full-scale model of a "better" mousetrap—with questions about its advantages over more conventional mousetraps. The installation also includes a case of "mystery models," each accompanied by a clue, which allows visitors to guess their purpose.