One Man, Many Ideas
Edition: July 2007 - Vol 15 Number 07
Author: Laura Thill
The word “Dabbling” is not in Alan Rothschild’s vocabulary. He has launched new companies, new museums and new ideas, always immersing himself completely in his projects. “If I have an interest, be it work or pleasure, I do it 100 percent,” he says.
Even as a teen, when he began helping out at his father’s distribution business, Rothschild’s Drugs and Medical Supplies (Syracuse, N.Y.), Rothschild took his work seriously. “I always was involved in the business,” he says. “I worked throughout high school, and after starting college, I continued working summers.”
The elder Rothschild had the foresight from the time he founded his business in 1926 to form a medical products division. “My father always saw a need to provide the public with prescription drugs, as well as doctors with their supplies,” Rothschild says. In the early 1960s, at the urging of Welch Allyn (Skaneateles Falls, N.Y.), the younger Rothschild began considering a separate location to house the medical supply side of the business.
After graduating from the Albany College of Pharmacy in 1965, Rothschild returned to Syracuse and opened a new company for med/surgical supplies and equipment. Although the focus was primarily med/surg, he managed to operate a home healthcare center as well, until he separated the two divisions in the 1980s.
Rothschild was busy, though apparently not busy enough. In the mid-1980s, he started Rothschild Development Corp., a medical facility construction venture. The new company’s projects included the 96,000-square-foot Madison-Irving Medical Center in Syracuse and a smaller medical office building in Watertown, N.Y.
At age 62, Rothschild was ready for a change. “I was winding down, looking forward to becoming more involved in the community,” he says. But, leaving behind a family business was more difficult than he had imagined. “I was the last one in my family to be involved in the business,” he says. “My entire career had been in this business.” After passing up several offers on the company, Rothschild decided to sell it to his long-time employee, Richard Bozogian. As a compromise to himself, Rothschild retained the home healthcare center, in which he continues to be peripherally involved.
Coming up with new ideas has never been much of a problem for Rothschild. As early as his college days, he was an inventor at heart. First, there was the adjustable ski pole. Next came the idea for a rubber-tipped cane to prevent slipping on ice. As forthcoming as the gadgets were, however, it turned out that the process of applying for a patent “was not the easiest thing in the world,” he admits. “You really need a patent attorney. I was young [when I came up with these ideas] and really didn’t have a full understanding of the patent process. I let the opportunities pass by.”
Years later, Rothschild produced two more inventions, and this time followed through with the patent. Together with Bozogian, he co-invented an “intelligent label” — a sticker with an electronic timing device to indicate an expiration date for a particular item. “For instance, if the time has elapsed for getting some medical equipment inspected, replacing [an expired] drug or calibrating a scale, this device warns you,” he says.
The second invention was a vehicle sticker with a built-in electronic timer designed to indicate when a vehicle inspection is due. This would be especially useful in such states as New York, where car owners do not receive a notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles warning them that their car inspection is due.
Although Rothschild was able to secure patents for his electronic labels, he never actually brought them to market. “That’s an extremely complex and costly process,” he points out. “If my existence depended on bringing these inventions to market, I’d have done so. After these [projects], I let some of my ideas go by the wayside.” He has few regrets, however. “I was involved in a lot of different things and couldn’t spend the time required on these endeavors.”
Of his various passions and pursuits, Rothschild particularly enjoyed starting an apothecary museum. While in pharmacy school, working on a project on patent medicines, he learned about patent medicines that were sold prior to the Food and Drug Administration Act of 1904. “Individuals and companies used to put almost anything in a bottle, label it and say it could cure all ailments,” he says. “This [school project spurred] my interest. At the time, there was no apothecary museum in central New York, so I decided to create an original turn of the century apothecary shop/ museum.”
He began collecting items, such as patent medicines, gold leaf bottles and various apparatus for compounding medicines, and opened the apothecary museum in 1966. It remained open to the public for 25 years. By the time Rothschild donated it to the Syracuse Museum of Science and Technology, his collection included about 5,000 cataloged items.
Twist of fate
Some believe that life is steered by fate; others say that’s nonsense. Be as it may, if Rothschild and his wife, Ann, had “turned right instead of left” during an outing to an antique fair, they would have completely missed the dealer selling patent models. Still feeling a loss since donating his apothecary museum, Rothschild was certain a future in patent models “was meant to be.”
The Patent Act of 1790 required inventors to submit a working model of their inventions when applying for a patent. Patent models could be no larger than 12 square inches, and they had to include paperwork and diagrams explaining how the invention operated and what its purpose was. Over 200,000 models were submitted between 1790 and 1880. An increasing lack of space led the U.S. Patent Office to end the requirement.
Some of the models were donated to the Smithsonian Institution, while the rest were auctioned off in 1925, according to Rothschild. Sir Henry Wellcome, founder of Glaxo-Wellcome, purchased the collection and held onto it until his death. In 1936, the trustees of Wellcome’s estate sold the models to Broadway producer Crosby Gaige. Gaige, in turn, sold out to a group of businessmen, who formed American Patent Models, Inc. In 1940, American Patent Models, Inc. declared bankruptcy, and the models were acquired by O. Rundle Gilbert, an auctioneer. Gilbert auctioned thousands of models. Then, in 1979, Cliff Petersen, a designer and inventor within the aerospace industry, purchased Gilbert’s remaining models, some of which had remained unopened since their original packing in 1926. In 1998, Rothschild purchased a significant portion of Petersen’s collection and established the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum.
Located at Rothschild’s home in Cazenovia, N.Y., the museum collection has grown to include nearly 4,000 items, including several smaller patent model collections, which he purchased from across the United States. The models reflect the 90-year progression of history during which they were created, notes Rothschild.
“Our original intention was to establish a national museum and invention center,” he says. “We hoped to grow inventors who would create a product, which would grow a company and help benefit a community.” As challenging as it was to obtain funding for the museum, Rothschild’s mission became even more difficult to accomplish after the fatal events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the fall of the Trade Center towers. “After 9-11, New York had to refocus its priorities,” he recalls. “That was understandable, of course.” Still, it became nearly impossible to raise money to establish the museum.
Given the time and money he was investing in his patent model museum, Rothschild eventually realized his dream wasn’t meant to be — at least, not this particular dream. “I’m a believer that what is meant to be will be,” he says. Having recently decided to downsize his collection, Rothschild has begun selling a portion of his collection.
In addition, he recently established a traveling patent model exhibit for museums nationwide. “The end result may be even better than the original plan,” he says.
For more information on the Rothschild Petersen Patent Model Museum, visit www.patentmodel.org or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.