Inventing a Better Mousetrap, a History of American Patent Models

Art & Sculpture Craft & Design Technology
Inventing a Better Mousetrap, a History of American Patent Models


Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of working on a book for Maker Media, called Inventing a Better Mousetrap. The book is a visual history of American innovation through its patent models. What many people may not know was that, from the inception of the U.S. Patent Office in 1790 until the requirement was dropped in 1880, all patent submissions had to be accompanied by a reference model. It didn’t have to actually work, but it had to visually represent the key functions claimed in the application so that patent examiners could get a better idea of how the mechanism worked.


Inventing a Better Mousetrap authors Alan and Ann Rothschild began collecting these fascinating, and largely forgotten artifacts of history in 1994, eventually amassing some 4,000 models, in what has become the Rothschild Patent Model Collection. This beautiful 280-page book that Make: has just released features some of the more iconic models in the collection and uses those models to paint a fascinating portrait of American technological development through the patents that helped define it.


While the historical dimensions of the book are fascinating and relevant to today’s makers in showing how people innovated out of necessity, in flashes of brilliance, while in the throes of armed conflict, and in craven attempts to get rich quick, being a Make: book, there’s a hands-on element, too. A chapter in the book includes the full build instructions for six projects, allowing you to recreate replicas of the original models in the Rothschild collection. Among them, you get to build a gorgeous electromagnetic motor, the first heated washing machine, a “pigeon starter” (a hunting devicce for scaring up birds), and yes, a “better” mousetrap.

mouseTrap_4The Electromagnet Motor project.

mouseTrap_3The patented invention for the first heated-bed washing machine.

mouseTrap_6A humane, multiple critter-catching mousetrap.

I was the editor for this project (along with Emma Dvorak and the brilliant and ubiquitous Brian Jepson) and I had the honor of being asked to write the introduction. You can read my intro below.

I am really thrilled with how this book turned out. If you have someone on a gift list who’s fascinated by American history, the history of technology, is a maker, he or she would likely love this book. You can pick up copies in the Maker Shed.

A Model of American Ingenuity

Since I was a child, I’ve had an obsession with all types of models and the art of model-making. I built models throughout my childhood. I’m still building models today.

There is something undeniably compelling, almost magical, about seeing some element of the world: a machine, a vehicle, a building, a memorable scene from history captured in a diorama, all in life-like miniature detail. Peering closely at a well-produced, well-presented model is almost like peering into another world or a precisely frozen rendering of our own.

Patent models, those three-dimensional manifestations of a new idea, new mechanism, or an entirely new realm of technology, were once required to be submitted with all patent applications. These late 18th century/19th century models may have had a utilitarian purpose, but they are no less compelling or imbued with enchantment than any other type of model.

Patent models often say a lot about the people who made them (or who could afford to have them professionally made). Among other things, they are an expression of the means available to the inventor. Some of them are quite crude, even whittled out of wood, while others pushed the limits of what could be machined and fabricated at the time. In many ways, these models encode the spirit of a young, optimistic America and its grand experiment in democratic governance, one that challenged people from all walks of life to invent their own future.

Our inventions say a lot about our desires, our dreams and aspirations for a better future. They express the best of us, our deep desire to improve humanity’s lot. They also give an almost comical insight into our less noble side – our desires to “get rich quick” and to never get off the couch, relegating the messy business of sustaining our lives to the machinery we’ve invented to surround us.

Besides my love of modeling, in my career as a writer and editor focusing on do-it-yourself media and technology, I have always been keenly interested in garage-borne innovation and bursts of game-changing creative genius.

These interests, model making and the nature of invention, perfectly converge in Ann and Alan Rothschild’s Inventing a Better Mousetrap. Their impressive patent model collection (4,000 models and counting) forms the heart of this beautiful, informative, and entertaining book.

The Rothschilds not only share with us some of their more interesting and important models, and the models’ often equally interesting histories, but they also offer insights into the spirit and specifics of the time, giving context to these inventions, some of which changed the course of American history and the literal engines that powered it.

Ironically, we have recently reentered the era of the design model. We now have 3D design programs and desktop 3D printers for rapidly visualizing and prototyping our ideas. A lot of the innovations around 3D designing, scanning, and printing have come to us from the so-called Maker Movement which has emerged over the past decade. This new identity as a “maker” – bestowed upon hobbyists, tinkerers, crafters, amateur robot builders, and anyone else who cares to assume the mantel—has inspired a new generation in search of innovative potential in America (as well as other regions of the world). In this “permission to play” ethos, with its open source sharing of ideas and project plans over the Internet, and through events like global Maker Faires, true and disruptive innovations are being incubated. The consumer desktop 3D printer, desktop CNC routing robots, and cheap and easy to understand and program tiny computers, like the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi, have all grown out of the Maker Movement.

In President Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech, the ears of every maker listening pricked up when he issued a call to “. . . the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things.” It was these makers and risk-takers who forged a United States out of a liberated British colony. And who will now help forge the early 21st Century.

In the true hands-on spirit of making, Inventing a Better Mousetrap even includes six patent models that you can build yourself. The patent model was a way of making what might be a complex, hard-to-understand mechanism clearer to patent examiners and to the general public (many patent models were—and still are—on display at The Smithsonian, the U.S. Patent Office, and elsewhere). Seeing is believing. Using this book, you can get hands-on with these models of American ingenuity by building replicas of six submitted patent models.

And it is also in the spirit of DIY that Ann and Alan Rothschild are to be commended. They turned a personal passion for patent model collecting into an important historical project that benefits us all and comes to full fruition with this book.

A new generation of risk-takers, doers, and makers will hopefully be inspired by those who have come before and by the models and maps of their discovery process that they left for us—and that Alan and Ann have so thoughtfully preserved and present to you now.

Gareth Branwyn
Author and chronicler of DIY media and technology
Former Editorial Director of Make: magazine

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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