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Patenting progress.

Cooper Union celebrated the ingenuity of 19th century mechanical engineering at its recent exhibit, "A Better Mousetrap: Patents and the Process of Invention." The display of early rotary engines, artificial limbs, pumps, and brick-making machines coincided with the 200th birthday of the New York school's founder, Peter Cooper, an entrepreneur, inventor, and philanthropist best known for his 1830 design of Tom Thumb, the first practical steam locomotive built in North America.

According to Jean Le Mee, chairman of Cooper Union's mechanical engineering department and exhibit curator, "One overwhelming impression given by the models is their practicality. They fit the traditional American frontier ethos."

That quest to build better mousetraps was spurred by the first patent act passed by Congress in 1790. It instituted a regulation unique to the U.S. patent system: along with drawings and a description, inventors had to file a model.

By 1880, when the model requirement was abolished, more than 200,000 physical replicas had been submitted. More than half that number have been lost due to neglect and abandonment. The items in the current exhibit were selected from 60,000 surviving patent models collected by Cliff Petersen, an aerospace engineer and 1943 Cooper Union graduate.

Interestingly, Le Mee noted that the rise of engineering schools and the teaching of descriptive geometry at the end of the 19th century shifted common practice away from model making and toward the increased use of drawings for thinking and design. Today, that situation is again being reversed. As CAD and techniques like stereolithography come to the fore, physical modeling is playing a leading role in aiding thought and design.

"Looking at these models, we catch a glimpse of the utter delight of the inventors' minds in coming up with their own versions: useful, though to whom and for what may not be any of our business, but above all different," said Le Mee. "They are a monument to an age, and a free lesson to our own."

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Title Annotation:Cooper Union exhibition of patent models
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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