Hagley Museum's Patent Model Collection Travels to China

The ‘Spirit of Invention’ exhibition, currently on display at Tsinghua University in Beijing, aims to inspire young entrepreneurs—no easy task in a country still bound by the principles of communism.


In 1866, Albert H. Kennedy, an 18-year-old farm boy in Medina County, Ohio, patented a design for power-driven sheep shears. In his design, turning a crank compressed a spring which, when released, drove the clippers. As required by the U.S. Patent Office, Kennedy submitted a small model that demonstrated how it functioned.

Kennedy died in 1940, and his device has been obsolete still longer. But, next year, both will find a new relevance on the other side of the world. Kennedy’s wood-and-brass model, which he may well have made on his parents’ kitchen table, will be among several dozen from Hagley Museum’s collection of 5,000 mostly 19th-century models to tour China in what will be billed as the “Spirit of Invention” exhibition, opening in April at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

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In a way, though, Kennedy himself will be on tour.

“The Chinese government is very keen to have an economy that is inventive,” says David Cole, executive director of Hagley Museum. “They want to grow their own group of inventors, in part by showing that ordinary people can be incredibly inventive and entrepreneurial.”

There is a solid reason for this: Entrepreneurialism is where the money is.

In 2000, revenues for state-owned and private companies in China were about even—about 4 trillion yuan in each category. By 2013, revenues of state-owned enterprises had grown 600 percent. The revenue of private companies, meanwhile, was up 1,800 percent. The increase in profitability was even more dramatic: 700 percent vs. 2,300 percent.

Naturally, the Chinese are now all about entrepreneurship. That involves both teaching it as a specific skill and making it acceptable in a country in which it is not part of the culture. As recently as 40 years ago, owning private property in China was a crime.

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Beginning in 1966, Mao Zedong, then chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, led a decade-long purge to rid China of its last vestiges of capitalism. In the so-called Cultural Revolution, private property was seized and the population organized into collective enterprises. Many of these collectives were assigned to produce a single commodity—for example, steel—but then failed to meet their goals. This experiment with communist “fundamentalism” ended with Mao’s death.

The leaders then cast aside ideology and did what they believed was right for the people, according to Bonan Lin, a Chinese patent attorney. To attract foreign investment, China established a patent system in the late 1970s, and has since modified it several times. Yet China is still reconciling itself to the idea of allowing an individual or company to have monopolistic rights to an invention. Such rights are the very essence of private property.

In the past, Bonan told the Pacific Intellectual Property Association in 2004, “scientists were educated free of charge by the state, and in fact all scientists were working for the government or state-owned firms. There was no reason to grant monopoly power to the inventors, and thus having to pay royalty for something that the state had already paid for.”

Changing that sort of thinking takes time, and it has focused heavily on the young. In 2001, nine Chinese universities launched programs in entrepreneurial education. As of 2016, China has graduated 7.65 million students from these programs, which have been required from all universities since 2015. A government report called mass entrepreneurship and innovation the “twin engines to upgrade industries.”

Yet Chinese experts have been dissatisfied with the results. In a recent report on the state of entrepreneurial education, Jiehua Huang, psychology professor at Guangzhou University, says curricula were underdeveloped, faculty inexperienced and support programs—internships, for example—too few. Then there’s the culture.

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“China’s cultural tradition advocates academic excellence to obtain respect and job security,” says Jiehua. “Unlike their counterparts from other cultures, Chinese students do not fully benefit from entrepreneurship courses that encourage innovation since they place less importance on creativity and have a general risk-avoidance mindset.”

Enter Albert Kennedy, whose story—along with those of the other models’ inventors—may encourage a different mindset in some exhibit-goers, says Ma Sai, associate professor in the Academy of Arts & Design at Tsinghua University. Ma curated the exhibition.

Kennedy knew sheep, and his invention was undoubtedly the result of having sheared many of the squirming creatures by hand. His father, William, had moved to northern Ohio in 1838 and—after the wolves were exterminated—went on to be one of Medina County’s largest sheep farmers, as well as an active citizen. William Kennedy was a justice of the peace and county commissioner. According to a history of Medina County, the senior Kennedy’s own father, John, a Revolutionary soldier, had driven the ox-drawn carts that carried hay bales to the top of Bunker Hill, where they were used to build fortifications.

Inheriting the can-do spirit, Kennedy seems to have spent much of his life as an educator, with other ventures on the side. In 1881, he patented a set of mensuration blocks—hinged wooden blocks that assemble into spheres, cylinders and other geometric shapes—to demonstrate principles of volume. At the turn of the 20th century, he was superintendent of schools in Rockport, Indiana, where he was a vigorous advocate for building a railroad bridge across the Ohio River. In 1920, he was proprietor of the town’s waterworks. A local history called Kennedy “The Wizard of Spencer County.”

The inventors of Hagley’s other models had greater or lesser trajectories. George H. Corliss (1817-1888) of Providence, Rhode Island, first stepped into the limelight in 1837 when, at the age of 20, he organized the reconstruction of a local bridge washed out by a flood. Corliss later patented a machine for sewing boots, shoes and heavy leather, then went on to develop the Corliss Steam Engine, whose efficiency made steam power more economical than water power. Corliss’ engine won first prize at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris. Hagley’s “Spirit of Invention” tour will include Corliss’ 1877 patent model for a gear-cutting machine.

Then, in Troy, New York, there was Samuel S.B. Lewis, a bookkeeper for the American Safe Steam Co., and his partner, William H. Sterling, who, in 1871, patented a “burglar-proof safe.” Their venture seems to have gone precisely nowhere. Which, of course, is also part of the story.

“Hagley’s exhibits (will) enable Chinese people to better understand American innovative culture and spirit 200 years ago, so as to inspire enthusiasm for innovation and creation,” Ma says. “The collections of Hagley Museum are very rich, and we hope that this exhibition is only a start.”

There was some serendipity in putting all this together, but also some entrepreneurship on the part of Cole, who came to Hagley in 2013 with “a strong urge to share all that Hagley has to offer”—a diplomatic way of saying that, despite a rich collection (more than 50,000 objects) documenting the history of American business and technology, the museum remains a bit obscure. In 2012, the total number of visitors to Hagley was about 55,000. Nearby Longwood Gardens, another DuPont-founded treasure—drew 1.3 million in 2016.

Nonprofits thrive on partnerships, so part of the formula for success is simple: Cooperating on projects is less expensive for all concerned, and it offers opportunities to introduce an organization to a new audience. Since Cole arrived, therefore, he has become a warrior for the cause.

In 2016, Cole was at the Smithsonian for a talk about Hagley’s recently (2015) acquired Rothschild Collection of patent models. Over 25 years, Alan Rothschild, a medical devices entrepreneur, and his wife, Ann, had acquired the world’s largest collection—about 4,000 models. The Rothschilds’ gift to Hagley joined about a thousand models already in the museum’s collection.

Such models were once the property of the U.S. Patent Office, but devastating fires in 1836 and 1877 destroyed or damaged more than 100,000 of them. In 1893, the surviving models were put in storage. Then, in the early 20th century, the U.S. Commerce Department decided to get rid of them all. Some were returned to their inventors or their survivors. About 10,000 went to the Smithsonian. The rest were sold at auction.

“So there I was at the Smithsonian about a year ago, lecturing on patent models,” Cole says. “And afterward a woman comes up to me and says that we should send our models to China.”

Outlandish idea? Not really. That woman, Rose Chen, says Cole “lit up.”

Chen, a native of Taiwan, knows people. President of the Rose Group for Cross-Cultural Understanding, Chen has made it her lifework to find and create opportunities for Chinese and Americans to speak to each other in ways that foster peace.

“There is a lot of misinformation about China in the United States,” she says, noting that the reverse is also true. “I was afraid that if we continue on this path, maybe someday because of misunderstanding or the cultural clashes, we will find a collision. And I certainly didn’t want it to happen.”

That dread came to a peak on Sept. 11, 2001. Chen’s son worked in that section of the Pentagon struck by a hijacked airliner. Fortunately, he was out that week with the flu. But, Chen says, “it was still too close.”

In the years since, the Rose Group has facilitated exchange programs between U.S. and Chinese journalism schools, taken winners from its annual short-film competition to China and launched ChinaFest, a weeklong festival—now in its 13th year—of Chinese film, arts and other cultural events held each year in Richmond, Virginia.

Until Chen heard Cole speak, she had never heard of Hagley.

“I was just amazed,” she says. “I had no idea of the entrepreneurship of just regular folks.” Knowing of China’s interest in encouraging entrepreneurs, “a light bulb went on.”

Chen called the cultural attaché at China’s Washington embassy. The attaché suggested partnering with Tsinghua University.

“I thought Tsinghua would present a good opportunity to engage legal experts, American chambers of commerce and the embassies,” says Chen. “It also has a law school and is a very prestigious university.” Cole agreed. He notes that Tsinghua—“the MIT of China”—is the university from which much of China’s current leadership graduated.

The attaché then called Tsinghua’s director of foreign affairs, who in turn called Chen. Introductions were made. Chen and Cole visited China, touring the Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Shenzhen centers where the exhibition will appear.

“I nodded a lot,” says Cole, who does not speak Chinese. “But the Chinese were excellent with translations. They want to get every nuance of meaning.” Tsinghua then sent a delegation of 25 deans, faculty and top graduate students to choose models for the exhibit.

“The idea was to have a brainstorming session,” says Cole. “We’re co-curating the show, so each side chose half the models.” Sixty were selected. Hagley supplied background information such as the inventors’ patent applications and whatever biographical information exists about them. Students and faculty with Tsinghua’s school of art and design designed the exhibit.

“They have complete creative license to build an environment for our artifacts that will bring them to life,” says Cole. Hagley’s Chinese partners are expecting a total audience of more than 1 million—a lot by Delaware standards.

Cole is gung-ho about the exhibition’s potential to tell America’s story.

“This exhibit has two messages,” he says. “One, the protection of intellectual property was a key ingredient in America’s industrial and economic success. Two, anyone can invent. We think of famous names, but the reality is that the vast majority of inventions were produced by people no one ever heard of, people who saw a problem, a way to make some money and a way to contribute. If the audience in China comes away with nothing more than those messages, we will have done our jobs.”

And Albert Kennedy will have done his.

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