Games Learning Resources Visit the Museum
America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Francis Lee's life and treasure buoy patent model

Enlarge Image
Francis Lee's life and treasure buoy patent model
Smithsonian Institution, Photo by Richard Strauss, Negative #: 2006-9723


This object appears in the following sections:

Marine Patent Models — Complete Catalog: 1851-1869

Marine Patent Models — Who's Inventing?

Marine Patent Models — Life boats and rafts

Patent drawing for Lee's first patent, 1857
Patent drawing for Lee's first patent, 1857

Patent drawing for Lee's second patent, 1858
Patent drawing for Lee's second patent, 1858

Life and treasure buoy
Catalog #: 308,537, Accession #: 89,797
In collection
From the Smithsonian Collection

Francis D. Lee envisioned a shipboard water tank that would float free of a sinking ship if drained in time. Passengers would cling to its exterior while a "treasure safe" suspended below the tank would save "bullion, mails, and other valuables." If the tank itself sank, a smaller cork buoy would float out of the turret at the top to "mark the location of the lost treasure." This is the patent model for Lee's 1858 revised version of the invention.

Physical Description

The model is made of brass and measures 5" square and 6" high. A collar faced in wood separates the buoy's square upper portion from its pyramidal lower section. Aboard ship, the square portion would sit exposed on the open deck, while the inverted pyramid would extend below. A strongbox, now missing from the model, would attach to the very tip of the pyramid. In an emergency, crew would stand on the wood-faced collar and hold fast to the rope lifelines. One man would turn a handle on the buoy's side to open the hatches in the faces of the pyramid and drain the interior of its store of water. A small amount of water would remain in the bottom of the tank to act as ballast. If all went well, the buoy and its passengers would float away from the foundering ship.

Date Made:
South Carolina
Transfer from the U.S. Patent Office

In the nineteenth century, the U.S. Patent Office granted hundreds of patents for an amazing variety of life-preserving boats, rafts, clothing, and other gear. The surge in interest in life-saving at sea was triggered by an increase in the number of passengers crossing the world's oceans and by the expanded distribution of print media, which brought shipwreck details into more family parlors than ever before.

Francis Dickinson Lee was an architect in Charleston, South Carolina. He received the first patent for his life and treasure buoy in late 1857 and a second in spring 1858. His basic idea-a water tank that could be drained to become a buoy-did not change between the two patents. The second time around, he subdivided the tank into multiple interior compartments, "to prevent the evil effect" of the entire body of stored water sloshing at once during heavy weather. He also corrected a flaw in operating the buoy in an emergency. "[C]onvenience is [now] afforded for opening the escape valves for the escape of the water from the tank and re-closing them to convert the tank into a buoy, after all the persons have assembled on the tank, without rendering it necessary for any person to go below the deck to open the valves."


Francis D. Lee, Life and Treasure Buoy, U.S. patent no. 20,072, Apr. 27, 1858

Francis D. Lee, Life and Treasure Buoy, U.S. patent no. 17,819, Dec. 8, 1857

The Charleston Directory, 1859

National Museum of American History About This Site | Sponsors | E-mail Signup | Credits