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Improvement in School-Desks and Seats.

December 27, 2011

miniature school desk

Back in the 1800’s, if you wanted to apply for a United States patent, you had to provide a small model of your invention as part of the application. The model needed to be less than 12″x12″ and highlight the inventive features of your creation, and the examiners at the Patent Office evaluated it to determine whether your invention was worthy of a patent. Afterwards, the U. S. Patent Office would store the models. Some of these models are quite cool, as they are miniature functioning machines and products of a bygone era.

the old Patent Office

the old Patent Office

Needless to say, storing models for each and every granted patent eventually became burdensome for the Patent Office. In 1870, Congress abolished the statutory requirement of a working model, and the Patent Office dropped its rule requiring models in 1880. (The Patent Office still requires a working model for anyone claiming a perpetual motion machine. They apparently required the same for flying machines until the Wright Brothers proved one could successfully fly in 1903.) However, some inventors still continued to (at their own discretion) submit models along with their applications. These days, models are no longer accepted with applications unless they are small enough to fit in the application file folder, or are specifically required by an employee at the office during prosecution of the application.

A first fire in 1836 destroyed many of the early models, and a second fire in 1877 destroyed 76,000 more. Although the Smithsonian saved some of the more historically important models, the remainder (over 150,000) were sold by the government in 1925. From there, they ended up in various museums and collections. Many ended up in the hands of a non-profit organization that sold them off to raise funds. Today, they regularly show up on Ebay.

miniature school desk

I purchased one at an estate sale in Mclean, VA. It is a small model of a school chair/desk (approximately 12″x12″x13″), of the type where on the back of the chair, a table portion is mounted to act as the desk for the student seated directly behind. The bottom and back of the chair portion are made of wooden slats, and the sides are cast iron. The desk portion at the back of the chair consists of a wooden table top and a wooden shelf beneath. The top edge of the desktop has a groove for holding tiny pencils. Both the chair seat and the desktop tilt upwards to give the students access to the area below the seat and the shelf below the desktop. (In the photos, the books, pencil, and inkwell are not part of the model and were added by me for effect.)

Unfortunately, I did not get an associated patent number or documentation for the model when I bought it. A small sticker on the desk top included a name that I mistakenly thought must be the inventor’s name. I found the area of the U.S. Patent classification system that had chairs similar to the model, but after several hours of searching for the name that was on the tag, I had found no such inventor. I began to think that perhaps this wasn’t really even a patent model; maybe it was a salesman’s sample or even a piece of dollhouse furniture? Although the thing looks old, it really seemed to be in too good of shape to be from prior to 1880. Plus, the sides are cast iron, and it seems like a lot of trouble to go through to make casts for just one model. Eventually I gave up on the name from the tag and decided to just look at drawings to see if I found anything that looked similar.

I lucked out almost immediately and found a drawing that matches the model exactly: Patent No. 127,940, issued June 11, 1872 to John Upham and William H. Kline for an “Improvement in School-Desks and Seats.” From reading the patent, it appears that the inventive feature of the desk is the hinge mechanism for the seat or desktop (identical hinges are used for both). Apparently, previous desks had hinge types that lost their tightness as they wore such that the seat or desktop would not stay in the raised position after one raised it. Upham and Kline’s hinge features a clamping piece E having a rounded portion E’ that fits into a tapered hole on the support D for the seat or desktop (see Fig. 3). If the hinge loses its tightness due to wear of the clamp and/or support, then one can restore the friction fit simply by tightening bolt F. I was surprised at how much having the real model in front of you really does help one understand the invention the drawings are trying to convey. It’s much easier to grasp than by looking at the drawings alone.

This hinge mechanism is the heart of the invention.

This hinge mechanism is the heart of the invention.

The clamp piece engages the rounded cup section at the pivot point to create friction.

The rounded cup section of the seat support at the pivot point.

The clamp piece engages the rounded cup section at the pivot point to create friction.

The rounded portion of the clamp piece engages the rounded cup section at the pivot point to create friction.

The clamping piece is not necessary for the hinge to function. Without it, the hinge functions as a normal hinge because the support bracket rotates about a protrusion on the chair standard itself, the support bracket being prevented from falling off of the protrusion by the spacing given by the floor, chair slats, and table top. However, the hinge mechanism will be loose and the seat and table leaf will not stay up once they are lifted. What the clamping piece primarily does is provide friction at the pivot point so that the seat or leaf stays up when you lift it until you push it back down again. As the joint wears, a re-tightening of the lower carriage bolt is all that is needed to restore that friction. Another benefit that is apparent from playing around with the device is that the clamping section also acts as a retainer for the support bracket and prevents it from slipping off of the chair standard if jarred. This is not even mentioned in the specification, but it is obvious from looking at the model firsthand.

The inventors are John Upham and William H. Kline from Eaton, Ohio. Eaton is a small town in Preble County west of Dayton, and near to the Indiana line.  In 1846, it had three churches, six stores, and a newspaper office. In 1860, it had 21 stores, a chair factory, and a carriage factory. In 1880, it had about 2000 residents. Both William H. Kline and John Upham evidently lived nearly their entire lives in Eaton. Unfortunately, it does not appear that their newfangled school desk ever made them wealthy, nor did it turn Eaton into an industrial powerhouse. In 2010, Eaton had around 8000 residents.

William H. Kline was born around 1826 in Ohio, to Jacob and Margritte Kline. Like his father Jacob, William was a wagon maker. He and his wife Josephine Gardner had at least three children. In the 1850, 1860, and 1870 Censuses, he is listed as a wagon maker. In 1860, he was a township justice. In 1880, he was a saloon keeper. He died in 1901, and is buried in Mound Hill Union Cemetery.

John Upham was born in Preble County around 1834 to David Upham, a farmer, and Sarah Mikesell. He fought in the Civil War, serving with the 165th Ohio National Guard, Company D. In 1873, he married Lucy Gardner, and they had at least one child (Alfred Upham, who became a professor at Miami University). In the 1860 and 1870 Censuses, John is listed as a carpenter. In 1880, he worked in a planing mill. In 1900, he is again listed as a carpenter. He died in 1911. Seeing as both John and William married Gardner women, maybe they were brother-in-laws.

Incidentally, Kline is the inventor of at least two other school-desk related patents: US Patent 100,416 granted March 1, 1870; and US Patent 172,451 granted January 18, 1876 (also naming Upham as co-inventor, as well as Sterling D. Tuttle). Furthermore, there appear to be many school-desk related patents from Eaton during this period: US Patents 80106, 99895, 109304, 118765, 122221, 130011, 134587, and 215620 all list Eaton inventors. Eaton was a hotbed of school-desk related ingenuity! Likely, there was some company in Eaton specializing in school desks at which all of the inventors worked. I have been unable to identify the company. An 1860 Ohio Gazetteer has a listing of Eaton businesses and lists John Harshman as the proprietor of a chair factory. Maybe this factory employed Upham and Kline? Considering the apparent desk manufacturing activity in the area, it seems likely that the desk based on this patent model may have been actually produced. If so, perhaps an actual example of the desk is still in existence.

Patent models such as this one are an interesting bit of history. They tell us a little bit about our past, and a little bit about their inventors. They show how much things have changed (the technology), but at the same time, they show that certain basic elements of our lives have not. Then, just as now, inventions were solutions to real world problems. Then, just as now, school desks were uncomfortable contraptions of wood and metal. Will we ever successfully design a school desk seat that doesn’t put your butt to sleep by third period? Probably not, but thanks to Upham and Kline, at least they don’t hit us in the head after we lift them up to stow our stuff anymore.


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