The Art of Invention

The Automobile - "Road Engine"

George B. Selden

Patent No. 549,160

November 5, 1895


George B. Selden's patent for the "Road Engine" was the beginning of the automobile. It is speculated that his interest in developing a horseless carriage was peaked by an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in Rochester, NY, which disabled most of the horses used by the Rochester Street Railway.

Selden combined an internal combustion engine with a carriage and various mechanical devices to form a self-propelling vehicle. Of course, prior to this time, primitive cars were already in existence - among others, a French army engineer, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot ( poor translation of French to English) ( and another link) built a self-propelled steam carriage. Cugnot's three-wheeled carriage traveled up to 3mph in 1769. An interesting side note, is that Cugnot's steam carrage caused the first auto accident when it ran out of control and demolished a garden wall.

An Englishman, Richard Trevithick, built a road steam engine in 1803.

The above notwithstanding, in 1879, Selden's patent is considered to be a highly original and ingenious conception.

Selden was a patent lawyer and talented engineer but, history records, an untalented mechanic. One historian states, "Selden was no mechanic. His ideas were sound, his understanding was clear; but tools were only lumps of metal in his hands." He was not interested in building only a model car. He wanted to establish a business with adequate funding to carry on through years of adversity and to cover the cost of experimentation. One of Selden's handicaps was his own personality. He was reportedly of a genial and kindly nature, but he had entered a profession that did not suit him and "continued disappointment with the automobile filled him with a barely suppressed impatience that sharpened a tongue already direct enough."

The application for the "Road Engine" was decades ahead of its time. The patent identifies George Brayton's 2-cycle engine as a component of the "Road Engine." Brayton patented the engine in 1872. The Brayton engine was a hot-air engine that ran quietly with petroleum fuel. (The Brayton cycle is the basis for all gas turbine engines).  It quickly became the preferred engine for the American auto industry. Selden enclosed the engine's crankcase and, along with other improvements, was able to produce 2 HP from a 370-lb. engine. Including the engine detail in the patent was his eventual downfall. Additionally, Selden does not specify either kerosene or gasoline as a fuel, indicating only a "hydrocarbon" for the purpose.

Although Selden could see that the automobile industry would become huge, in 1878 the automobile industry was in its embryonic stage. Selden realized that a 17-year patent had a good chance of running out before the industry took off. Hence, he would miss out in cashing in on the profits from the patent. Interestingly, at that time, the U.S. Patent Office allowed an inventor up to two years to respond to an inquiry about a patent application. To stretch out the patent application process as long as he could, Selden waited the maximum amount of time to respond to each Patent Office letter. He also filed amendments to the patent to force the examination process to restart. The application was filed May 8, 1879, but, through Selden's delaying tactics, it wasn't until November 5, 1895, that the patent was granted - over 16 years from the initial application! As a result, Selden had a lock on the patent for the automobile beginning in 1895. His patent was airtight and covered virtually every major aspect of the automobile. The patent affected all automobile manufacturers from that time forward.

A group of New York businessmen, headed by William Whitney (inventor of the Whitney Chain), wanted to manufacture electricity-propelled cabs in New York. To do this, they joined forces with the Pope Manufacturing Company (go to bottom of webpage), a bicycle company looking to expand. They soon discovered the Selden patent and determined it was a problem. They decided to buy Selden out.  Selden agreed to license the patent to their newly formed company, The Colombia and Electric Vehicle Company. Shortly thereafter the CEVC began collecting royalties from automobile manufacturers. Forty percent of the proceeds were to go to a new entity called the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers. Selden received a lump sum of $10,000 and twenty percent of the proceeds which amounted to a license fee of 1% of the automobile's retail price. It is estimated that Selden made over $200,000 in the next eight years.

Initial resentment of the licensing fees and royalty payments was short lived among automobile manufacturers. The most successful auto manufacturer of the time, Alexander Winton, decided to come to terms with the Association early on. Other manufacturers quickly bowed to the demand after the Selden patent was upheld in a court challenge. The Haynes-Apperson Company, the Auto-Car Company and the Charles Duryea Power Company all complied. (For an amazing list of automobile companies, click here). The terms of the licensing were quite benign. The manufacturers did not have to pay royalties on autos produced before the time of the agreement and they were allowed to deduct the cost of the court challenge from future royalties.

As indicated above, the engine detailed in Selden's patent led to his downfall. Henry Ford applied to the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers for a license to manufacture automobiles. The Association refused saying the Ford was "an automobile assembler and not a builder of cars." Ford, in his characteristic way, went on building cars anyway. Later, when an association representative approached Ford about licensing the patent, history records Ford as responding to the Association's representative as "Tell Selden to take his patent and go to hell with it." In 1903, the Association sued Ford for patent infringement.

A law suit was filed. The lengthy battle was fought in the court room and in the public press. Ford ran large newspaper articles about the suit and portrayed Selden as the big New York lawyer and himself as the poor underdog garage mechanic just trying to make a living.

On September 15, 1909,after a long legal battle and many volumes of testimony, Judge Hough of the US District Court ruled against Ford and for Selden that the patent was valid and that, indeed, Ford was making automobiles. 

Henry Ford writes in his book, My Life and Work, Doubleday, 1926, that the Association of Automobile Manufacturers then began to advertise warnings to prospective Ford customers against purchasing Ford automobiles implying that those who purchased or owned a Ford automobile might be prosecuted on criminal and civil charges and that buying a Ford automobile  "might well be buying a ticket to jail." Ford ran a four page ad in newspapers across the country offering legal protection to all Ford auto owners based on the $6,000,000 assets of the Ford company plus a $6,000,000 bond. Hence, $12,000,000 of legal protection for each and every Ford owner. The lawsuit had the affect of increasing Ford Motor Company sales - sales nearly doubled that year to 18,000 cars. Ford states that about fifty Ford automobile owners asked for the bond. The public was not intimidated. 

Ford eventually won, however in that even though the court found Selden's patent valid, the court found that Selden's patent illustrated specified a Brayton 2-cycle engine while Ford was using the Otto 4-cycle engine. Therefore, Ford was not infringing and owed Selden no compensation. Once the auto industry learned this, all auto companies ceased paying royalties based on the patent and Selden's golden goose died. However, after the legal wrangling and all was said and done, the patent had only one year before it expired anyway.

Note that Selden's friend George Eastman, of Eastman Kodak fame, witnessed the patent. In the link to Eastman, it is stated that "Eastman sought out the two amateur photographers in Rochester, George Monroe and George Selden, and became their willing pupil." In 1879, Eastman and Selden applied for a patent on a coating machine for dry photographic plates. 


Other links:

Selden's Automobile

Other Selden Inventions from George Eastman House


The Art of Invention, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Beavercreek, OR 97004