Patents and the Process of Invention

Click on the image to view PDF of timeline from the exhibition catalogue.
Click here to view video of the timeline from the exhibition.

With the political, economic, and industrial revolutions sweeping the former colonies at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the urge to expand, to contribute to the "progress" of mankind, to try the new, to invent, was given free rein. As the century unfolded, the movement gained momentum. The period following the Civil War, from the early 1870's to 1914 saw an extraordinary burst of inventive energy in the United States. It was as if, with the closing of the geographic frontier, a new frontier of the mind opened. The energy that had been directed to take hold of the land turned itself to its exploitation with the same gusto and arrogance. Methods for exploiting natural resources: mining, quarrying, agriculture; methods for processing materials, particularly wood, steel, bricks; for taming the ever-increasing power of steam, for encoding, transmitting, storing, retrieviing messages that govern this restless flow of materials and energy were devised. It is in this period of unrestrained activity that America truly became, in the popular mind, the Land of Opportunity. It was, in the words of the students of the Cooper Union at the time, as recorded in their address to Peter Cooper on his 80th birthday, "a period without parallel in the annals of time for that wonderful progress in the industrial arts and physical sciences that heralded the dawn of a brighter era for the toiling millions." Thousands of patents were granted. The documents filed at the time: Letters Patent, drawings, models, constitute a marvelous record of this flowering, a monument to the myth of Yankee ingenuity, when faith in technological progress and in the perfectibility of man through that progress began to crystallize into what would come to be known as the Aerican Dream. A century later, the thirst for the new has spread to the whole world and it could be said even more truly than before that "the period [has been] without parellel in the annals of time for that wonderful progress in the industrial arts and the physical scinces," to which we now could add the biological sciences. Yet, we may wonder, considering that the century has also been the most murderous in recorded history, and considering that some of the direct consequences of that clebrated progress are now here to haunt us while all sorts of unpredictable biodevelopments are foreshadowed in the future, whether we could be as confident as the students of 1859 that we are indeed "at the dawn of a brighter era for the toiling millions" or rather on the brink of a "Brave New World"?



Read "Encodium to models and Their Makers"
[pdf file]

View Patents Timeline
[pdf file]

View video of timeline from the exhibition
[mpg file]