Patent Model, Life and Treasure Buoy

This patent model was submitted to the U.S. Patent Office by Francis D. Lee, an architect in Charleston, South Carolina, to illustrate his idea for a shipboard water tank that would float free of a sinking ship if drained in time. Passengers would cling to its exterior while a “treasure safe” suspended below the tank would save “bullion, mails, and other valuables.” If the tank itself sank, a smaller cork buoy would float out of the turret at the top to “mark the location of the lost treasure.” Lee’s first design of this invention was patented in 1857. This is the model for his revised version, also awarded a patent, in 1858.
The model is made of brass and measures 5” square and 6” high. A collar faced in wood separates the buoy’s square upper portion from its pyramidal lower section. Aboard ship, the square portion would sit exposed on the open deck, while the inverted pyramid would extend below. A strongbox, now missing from the model, would attach to the very tip of the pyramid. In an emergency, crew would stand on the wood-faced collar and hold fast to the rope lifelines. One man would turn a handle on the buoy’s side to open the hatches in the faces of the pyramid and drain the interior of its store of water. A small amount of water would remain in the bottom of the tank to act as ballast. If all went well, the buoy and its passengers would float away from the foundering ship.
In the 19th century, the U.S. Patent Office granted hundreds of patents for a wide variety of lifepreserving boats, rafts, clothing, and other gear. The surge in interest in lifesaving at sea was triggered by an increase in the number of passengers crossing the world’s oceans and by the expanded distribution of print media, which brought shipwreck details into more family parlors than ever before.
Object Name
patent model, life & treasure buoy
Date made
patent date
Lee, Francis D.
Lee, Francis D.
Physical Description
copper alloy (overall material)
wood (part material)
ferrous (fitting material)
textile (fitting, tag tie material)
paper (card material)
overall: 6 in x 4 in x 4 in; 15.24 cm x 10.16 cm x 10.16 cm
associated place
United States: South Carolina, Charleston
home of patentee
United States: South Carolina, Charleston
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
patent number
On the Water exhibit
Expansion and Reform
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Publication title
On the Water online exhibition
Publication URL

Visitor Comments

Add a comment about this object

**Please read before submitting the form**

Have a comment or question about this object to share with the community? Please use the form below. Selected comments will appear on this page and may receive a museum response (but we can't promise). Please note that we generally cannot answer questions about the history, rarity, or value of your personal artifacts.

Have a question about anything else, or would you prefer a personal response? Please visit our FAQ or contact page.

Personal information will not be shared or result in unsolicited e-mail. See our privacy policy.

Enter the characters shown in the image.