Maritime Patent Models

Almost 10,000 patent models reside in the Smithsonian’s collections. About 70 of them demonstrate marine inventions from the 1770s to the 1950s. These watery innovations offer a glimpse of the ways that inventors, particularly in the nineteenth century, sought to overcome the many challenges Americas encountered working and traveling on the water.

The vital importance of maritime commerce to the nation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created a fertile environment for maritime innovation. Spurred by the potential economic benefits, inventors sought faster and surer ways to deliver people and cargo across the ocean and over the nation’s expanding network of inland waterways. They sought ever more efficient and powerful engines, paddle wheels, and steering systems. They looked for hitherto unknown systems to make ships stronger and build them faster. They devised a mind-boggling array of boats, rafts, buoys, garments, and floating furniture to preserve lives from shipwreck.

People from all walks of life held patents in nineteenth-century America. Because anyone could create an original invention and receive patent protection for it, the patent process was celebrated as a unique part of America’s democracy.