What many Americans may not be aware of is that, from the introduction of the U.S. Patent system, in 1790, up until 1880, every submitted patent document required a model of the invention to accompany it. Thousands upon thousands of models were submitted, so many that buildings had to be built to house them all. In 1994, an upstate New York couple, Ann and Allan Rothschild, began collecting some of these surviving models, eventually amassing some 4,000 items. This model collection forms the basis for Inventing a Better Mousetrap, a beautiful and fascinating exploration of these models, the patents they illustrated, and the sometimes profound import these inventions had on the growth and development of the United States of America.
One of the more fascinating dimensions of history is context, understanding the unique circumstances out of which something developed and the impact that development had upon history's larger canvas. Besides gorgeous photographs and details of each of the models, every chapter (e.g. Steam, Heat, Light & Fire, Leather & Shoes, Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms) provides background on the circumstances that gave rise to the developments it examines. So, for example, in the ATF chapter, we learn about how the 1779 "Corn Patch and Cabin Rights" law, enacted for the Virginia territories (giving settlers 400 acres in what is now Kentucky, if they built a cabin and planted a corn crop), led to massive corn yields in the extremely fertile soil of the region. And with an excess of corn, a large Irish and Scottish immigrant population, and the unique qualities of the limestone- and iron-rich water, we ended up with Kentucky bourbon (and the invention of the machinery to distill it). Besides this rich context for the patents, another wonderful dimension to this book is the project section, where six patent models are presented in full DIY detail, allowing you to get seriously hands-on with history, creating replicas of such models as an electromagnetic motor, the first water-heated washing machine, and yes, a mousetrap.
Inventing a Better Mousetrap appears at a perfect time, as the maker movement and desktop fabrication technologies are prompting lots of people to learn computer-aided design, model making, and various forms of prototyping. As the initial quote in the book puts it: "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see," attributed to Winston Churchill. This book is a beautiful, fascinating, and inspiring look backwards, as new, democratizing technologies offer us the possibility of an actively hands-on future.
Disclosure: I was the editor on this book and wrote its introduction.
Inventing a Better Mousetrap: 200 Years of American History in the Amazing World of Patent Models
by Alan Rothschild and Ann Rothschild, Introduction by Gareth Branwyn
2015, 292 pages, 9.5 x 9.5 x 0.6 inches (paperback)