A love of the liberal arts can manifest in many ways. Susan Eichelberg '60 (Glendening is her former married name and current professional name) has assembled a shrine of sorts to the curiosity and inventiveness that is both source and sequel to broad explorations of "liberal arts-ish" inquiry. Her collection of over 250 patent models has taken more than 30 years to assemble.
The United States Patent Office was established in 1790. The U.S. was the only country to require an inventor to submit a model of their invention. This was in addition to a paper drawing so that anyone could reproduce the invention. "These models are a physical history of innovations that have shaped the world," says Susan. Many were made by professional model makers and are works of art. Some of her models have been exhibited at museums and she is always interested in having other exhibitions. "I love having people learn about them and enjoy them." A Harvard University exhibition (Science Center, 1 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA) of 77 of her models opened Saturday, May 2, and continues week days throughout the year. Because these models are original and one of a kind, they are priceless, according to Susan. Among her most treasured is Thomas Edison's model (October 18, 1881) of his Carbonizer for the Filaments of Light Bulbs.
Susan skated into the world of patent models. She is a longtime avid ice skater and collector of antique ice skates. When she learned about patent models she decided to buy one for an ice skate (models never come in pairs). That purchase launched her 30-year quest to build a significant museum quality collection. One collector warned her that her interest in patent models would likely morph from interest into passion. "And he told me that the passion can become a burden when it becomes time to protect them after your opportunity to care for them is over.
"He was right," she laughs. Susan lives on 16 acres along the river in the upper Hudson River valley. Her property includes two other homes in addition to her own, and she hopes to bequeath the entire estate as a museum. Her collection of patent models would be one of its drawing cards. "I'm considering several options to keep the collection together after I'm gone," she explains. "Leaving my home as a museum is one, but any choice is likely to require a group of committed donors."
Interest...passion...burden--whatever you call her collection, it's a labor of love.
"I love these models because the inventions are intrinsically interesting," says Susan. "And I love them because of their fascinating stories." Did you know that Kathy Greene suggested the critical component--metal tines--for Eli Whitney's cotton gin, but the rightful credit for her part in the invention was denied her. Not surprising, according to Susan "Patents by women were rare because women were generally uninformed about patent law," she explains. "They were taught to be subservient and willingly handed over their creations to men. Sometimes their ideas and inventions were stolen outright." One example: S. Hibbard's patent of the feather duster in 1876
Interest, passion, burden--whatever you call her collection, it's a labor of love.was hard fought. She had to fight her own husband in patent court before she was justly awarded ownership of the patent. In its own small way, Susan's collection seeks to right these wrongs--it contains a large number of models for patents issued to women.
Other stories: Abraham Lincoln was the only president granted a patent (for a device that would lift a boat off a sand bar); and the terms "red tape" and "real McCoy" originate in the U.S. Patent Office (the former from the red tape that affixed patent number tags to their models, the latter from railroad coupling inventor Elisha McCoy). And how about a story on "timing is everything!" Inventor Elisha Gray's was off by just a smidgen. Says Susan: "I bought Gray's model for the telegraph in part because it's interesting in its own right but mostly because he should have a place in my collection. He and Alexander Graham Bell fought in court over the patent to the telephone. Bell won because his application came into the patent office three hours before Gray's. Not only was it close, it may have been unfair--recent discoveries suggest that Bell stole the key idea from Gray."
Susan invites alumni with questions about her collection to contact her. If anyone is interested in joining her effort to establish a museum as a permanent home for her collection of patent models, please contact her. And she would love to meet anyone planning to visit the Harvard University exhibit. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 845.534.9124.