Having Collected 40,000 Wacko Gadgets, Cliff Petersen Is Patently One Big Mother of Inventions

updated 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Cliff Petersen figures he knows a good idea when he sees one. Like a rocking chair with a built-in 10-note accordion so that "if you know a tune with 10 notes or less, you can put everybody to sleep." Or a combination bootjack-burglar alarm that'll remove your Wellingtons at night, then thwack your bedroom door should a burglar try to intrude. Or a fire alarm with springs and wires that strike a match that lights a gas jet that produces a flame to alert you to the fact that there's a blaze in your bungalow—provided you haven't been fricasseed in the meantime, of course.

Petersen, a wealthy engineer of 65, has collected 40,000 good ideas like these, many of them stashed in his 15-room Beverly Hills home. They are scale models that had been submitted, as required by law until 1878, to the U.S. Patent Office as working illustrations of new inventions. Petersen's aging artifacts represent the largest single collection of patent models in the U.S., more than three times the size of that owned by the Smithsonian Institution. Some folks call the Smithsonian "the nation's attic"; that's probably because they haven't seen Petersen's attic.

Among Petersen's oddities are 1,200 different model washing machines, 38 types of typewriter, 300 kinds of curtain rod and 23 pieces of funeral equipment (including a refrigerated coffin, presumably for use when there may be considerable delay before interment). There's also a billiard table side rail co-designed by tire man B.F. Goodrich, a cavalry saber holder invented by Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart, a "Carbonizer for Electric Light Filaments" from Thomas Edison and a half-size all-wood model of the now-famous Gatling gun.

Before the turn of the century, some 200,000 such models had been sent to and displayed at the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. Then in 1876, a massive fire destroyed about half of them. The surviving models proved too expensive to maintain and store, and so in 1926 thrifty Calvin Coolidge ordered the remainder sold off. The Smithsonian took some, independent retailers scooped up others, and finally in 1942 an auctioneer couple bought the last 50,000 with plans to open a museum.

The museum never happened, and 30 years later the couple began selling off samples in small lots. In 1979 Petersen spotted their tiny ad in Smithsonian magazine offering "original U.S. patent models for sale." Says Petersen: "When I found out some were being listed for well under $100, I put in a bid of $25 and got 12 of them." He didn't realize it immediately, but an addiction had begun. "I couldn't believe it. Here were the original tags; these were the actual models that had been sent to the Patent Office!"

Over the next six years Petersen acquired about 1,900 of the couple's models at auctions and set about restoring some of them to original condition. While his son, now a 24-year-old computer science major at Arizona State, and his late wife helped with the restorations, Petersen made some shrewd sales to help support his habit. For $15 he bought the model for a "Pickle-Sorter" invented by J.H. Heinz (brother of the more famous H.J.), then sold it to the Heinz company for $450. After that transaction, " 'Boy', I thought, 'I've got a winner,' " says Petersen, who quickly anted up $500,000 for the rest of the auctioneer couple's extensive collection.

Raised in Queens, N.Y. (his father was a Norwegian-born shipwright, his mother a housewife), Petersen recalls starting the collecting habit early with "odds and ends, stamps and coins and a few mechanical things." After earning a civil engineering degree from Manhattan's Cooper Union, he helped design jet engines for the defense industry and even invented an artificial larynx but had no luck marketing it. In 1955, bankrolled with money acquired in a venture into land developing, he founded his real "profit-making business," an engineering consulting firm that now "rents engineers to the aerospace industry."

Petersen has now left the running of his company to a longtime partner while he concentrates on his mania for models. Those that aren't in storage in New York—where three full-time assistants have been cataloging them on a computer—fill the servants' quarters over his four-car garage and clutter almost every corner of his house. Even his kitchen provides space for a model bib holder, a fly-shooing device, an old ice-cream maker and a doll-size contraption for cutting and "panning" (removing) cakes. "Everything in the collection is unique," says Smithsonian consultant Robert Johnson, an expert on 19th-century technology. "Many of these things never went into production and remained forever just dreams of their inventors."

Sometimes for good reason. Consider "Dr. Brown's Electro-Vapor Medicated Bath," which promised to cure all ailments by adding an electric current to a sit-in steam bath. Or Warren Wasson's "Teeter-Totter Shower House" in which, the inventor claimed, "a normal-size person and four children, aged, respectively, 9, 8, 6, and 4, have comfortably bathed at the same time."

Petersen admits that his fascination with such would-be wonder products has become "a hobby gone awry." Says his second wife, Diane Bueché who separated from Petersen two years ago and now owns a Eureka, Calif., bakery: "As long as there was a scattering of them, it was extremely pleasant and very interesting. It was a real conversation piece. But as the collection grew, it was just overwhelming. They were literally everywhere. I could live comfortably with 500. But 40,000? That's a lot of little toys."

Although a Japanese consortium has offered him $15 million for the lot, Petersen wants to sell his models to museums and libraries in the U.S. in hopes of inspiring future Edisons. But sell he will, one way or the other. "I have been working 80 to 100 hours a week," says Petersen, just a bit wearily. "It's really time for someone with greater resources to do something with the collection."

—Ned Geeslin, and Stanley Young in Beverly Hills

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