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“This is a record of land: of soil, rather than people,” begins Pare Lorentz’s 1936 documentary, The Plow that Broke the Plains: “a story of the Great Plains, the 400,000,000 acres of wind-swept grass lands that spread up from the Texas panhandle to Canada; a high, treeless continent; without rivers, without streams; a country of high winds, and sun, and of little rain.”1 Ostensibly, the film’s purpose was to boost New Deal efforts to resettle struggling farmers and rehabilitate impoverished soil. Rex Tugwell, as head of the New Deal Resettlement Administration (RSA), sponsored Lorentz’s film on the recommendation of Henry Wallace, who was at that time Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture. Yet coverage of these topics was confined to scarcely three minutes of expository text, hastily tacked on to what Lorentz characterized as “a melodrama of nature – the tragedy of turning grass into dust.” In just over twenty-eight minutes of film, Lorentz’s first attempt at movie-making tracks the boom and bust of Midwestern agriculture and the ecological crisis of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s (). Stylistically, the film owed more to silent pictures than talkies. For the score, the popular composer Vergil Thompson wove an epic tapestry of military marches, ragtime, popular spirituals, and folk songs. Finis Dunaway dubbed Lorentz’s film a “secular prayer to the possibilities of New Deal reform,” but Thompson’s score made it otherwise: over a meditative shot of a horse’s skull on cracked earth, an organ slowly pounds out the Lord’s Prayer.2 Thompson’s musical references help us understand how shared crises can be made nationalist ones. They also serve as a reminder that, contrary to Lorentz’s claims to deal in soil rather than people, liberal reforms were social and political projects, and that the hopes pinned to them were not universally held.
Unlike rival systems in France and Britain, early United States law from 1790 until 1880 required patentees to supply working models of their inventions. Although the US system was widely copied later in the century (e.g., by Germany and Japan), by that time the models requirement was widely obsolete. Thus by the time of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property in 1883, the prior tradition of making and examining models was virtually irrelevant: it curtailed the possible scope of patents, excluding, for example, patents on pure processes. So for these and other reasons inventors’ lobbies vehemently opposed it. Nevertheless the culture of patent models is worth studying both for the light it sheds on shifting concepts of innovation, and as an instrument of international publicity for the US patent system: the requirement of a model shifted attention from motive concept to the apparatus represented. The models requirement, moreover, sustained a culture of invention populated by professional model makers and lawyers clustered in the nation’s capital, as well as a popular public museum.
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