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May 6

Found: A Miniature Working Model of the National Archives Vault

It had been forgotten down in the basement.

It still works, too.
It still works, too. Jeff Reed for the National Archives

Then-Vice President Richard Nixon stopped by the National Archives building on June 29, 1954, to pay his respects at the unveiling of the shrine to the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. Joining him was the president of the Mosler Safe Company, the storied metalworks that built the gold vaults at Fort Knox, the blast doors for the Manhattan Project, and the Navy’s first ironclad warship.

To help illustrate the inner workings of his latest creation for the Archives, Ed Mosler Jr. pointed Nixon to a refrigerator-sized electric model. With the flick of a switch, they watched in dollhouse-scale as a tiny Constitution lowered from its display case and tucked into a subterranean armored strongbox. Lest anyone forget the master safe builder behind this unique device, the model helpfully bore the name “MOSLER,” in 72-point bold font.

Until around the year 2000, this model vault stood guard in the Archives vestibule and delighted onlookers with its twice an hour, on the half hour performance. Mosler originally built it not as an educational device, but as a means of winning the government contract to build a full-scale vault to protect the nation’s founding texts from atomic bombs. “It was a sales tactic,” says Richard O Jones of the Butler County Historical Society in Hamilton, Ohio. “They built this model as a concept and they took it to the National Archives to show them how it would work.”

Vice President Nixon, Senator Bricker and Mr. Mosler viewing the scale model of the original National Archives vault.
Vice President Nixon, Senator Bricker and Mr. Mosler viewing the scale model of the original National Archives vault. National Archives and Records Administration

The model impressed the archivists and Mosler got the contract. Later, Mosler donated the model to the government and arranged for its prominent display near the full-sized Constitution.

In the early 2000s, the Archives underwent major renovations and got a new state-of-the-art vault designed by Diebold. During construction, the model made its way downstairs and was promptly forgotten about. It wasn’t until Atlas Obscura made inquiries last month that staffers at the Archives rediscovered the model in an unceremonious nook, where it had been gathering dust and leaking oil on the carpet.

According to Archives Director of Public Affairs Miriam Kleiman, the rediscovery has “created a whole resurgence of interest within the building … The thought that this 1954 thing no longer existed.”

The miniature model of the original National Archives Vault was recently rediscovered down in the basement.
The miniature model of the original National Archives Vault was recently rediscovered down in the basement. Jeff Reed for the National Archives

Kleiman says the model has now been relocated to a more prominent spot within the Archives offices, and a historical plaque has been mounted on the wall for the first time. Archives staff also couldn’t resist testing to see if the button still worked after almost two decades in storage.

“No one knew if this would work,” says Kleiman. “Because of security concerns, this decision had to go up to the Archivist of the United States, and he came down immediately, he thought it was so cool.”

Kleiman confirms that the model still works beautifully, looking none the older for its 63 years of age. They also gave the device a thorough dusting and took a series of photos for the historical record.

National Archives staff carefully dust the vault model.
National Archives staff carefully dust the vault model. Jeff Reed for the National Archives

It turns out there’s actually another model out there, too. Mosler built an identical sister model for its headquarters in Hamilton, Ohio. When they went out of business decades later, the model made its way to the Butler County Historical Society. “It’s out on display in a room called the Ritchie Auditorium, and anybody can go in and look at it,” says Jones.