Saturday, February 11, is National Inventors’ Day.* In previous years most (including us) wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But this year is different … and that’s because we’re now obsessed with second, third and twentieth thoughts and the people who think them.
We’re talking about inventors … the people who muse, “There MUST be a better way to do this.” Then they put their mind to it, test things out and – wow! – come up with a clever solution. You might assume, “That sort of thought is reserved for geniuses,” but we’re here to tell you that regular people (like you reading this now) can come up with great thoughts, too … and there’s a museum exhibit to prove it. It has become a fan favorite, which is why we’re compelled to tell you about it today.
“Nation of Inventors” is a new permanent exhibit at Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, on the site along the Brandywine River where E.I. du Pont set up his gunpowder works in 1802 after arriving in the United States from France two years earlier. This is the ancestral home and gardens of the famed du Pont family, which ultimately created a company that today is a leading producer of science-based products, including Teflon and Lycra. Hagley’s mission is to further the study of business and technology in America, inspiring its visitors to find ways to be innovative in their own lives. “Nation of Inventors” occupies 5,600 square feet on two floors of Hagley’s Visitor Center, and it celebrates the American spirit of ingenuity. There are about 120 patent models on display in the exhibit.
But what, exactly, IS a patent model? We’re so glad you asked. The U.S. Patent Office opened in 1790 and for the first 90 years of its existence, it required people applying for a patent to put their thoughts into writing, of course, but they also had to submit a “patent model.” Put simply, that was a scaled representation as intended to demonstrate the key components and usefulness of the invention. The models themselves are miniature works of art, tiny tributes to someone’s incredible idea. In 1880, the Patent Office decided it would no longer require models with each patent application, and it moved the collection it had amassed into storage. In the early 20th century, the office relinquished the full collection, donating some models to the Smithsonian, returning some to the inventors or their descendants, and selling others to private collectors.
Hagley began collecting patent models in the 1960s as it searched for models with ties to the early years of the du Pont business ventures in the United States. Though the museum has yet to find any patent models from the du Ponts, it has so far amassed about 5,000 models from other inventors. Though there are items in Hagley’s collection credited to names you’d recognize –Jim Beam, Bissell, Mason (you know, the jar guy), Steinway and Westinghouse, for example – most patents were issued to regular people who discovered ways of doing things better and more efficiently. What we’ve learned is that ANYONE can be an inventor, because there shouldn’t be limitations on creativity.
This exhibit also celebrates the diversity of innovators, highlighting immigrant inventors, Black inventors, and female inventors. In fact, a woman was responsible for one of the most interesting patent models in the entire collection: an amazing type of fire-escape ladder that operated in two directions, allowing residents of urban high-rises to climb down on one side while firefighters climbed up on the other. Its rungs are also closer together, helping women and children – who have smaller feet and shorter strides (plus the women were usually dealing with annoying skirts) – escape more easily. She. Was. A genius!!!
Ready to get nerdy with us? The ability for Americans to own their ideas is assured in the U.S. Constitution – Article 1, Section 8 – which addresses the concept of intellectual property. Though the concept is not unique to the United States (some historians believe that the first official patent was issued in Florence, Italy, in 1421), the fact that it’s written into the governing document of our country is very special. In fact, getting a patent was such a big deal that in the earliest days of the Patent Office, the U.S. President himself was required to sign each document. Hagley has patents signed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson in its collection.
So … you can celebrate National Inventors’ Day and Presidents Day all in one place. Now, that’s a downright brilliant idea!
For more information about what else you can do on a visit to Wilmington, please start planning at https://www.visitwilmingtonde.com/.
* Please note that National Inventors Day is celebrated on February 11 because that’s Thomas Edison’s birthdate. And let’s face it … he was a smart guy who invented all kinds of stuff. But let’s remember that he’s the exception, not the rule. We can ALL be inventors! Now, get out there and do something clever!