A Brief History
On November 5, 1895, an unlikely candidate from Rochester, New York became the first American to patent an automobile. George Selden was actually an attorney that loved to dabble in his workshop. The son of an attorney that represented suffragist Susan B. Anthony, Selden’s attorney work included representing George Eastman (the Kodak camera guy) in patent matters. Selden also patented a typewriter and a hoop making machine.
Selden was intrigued by the internal combustion engine displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia (built by George Brayton… Is everyone in this story named George???) The original engine was too large to be practical, and Selden set about to make a smaller, practical version. By 1878 he had produced a working 1 cylinder 400 pound version with the assistance of 2 friends, and applied for the engine and an automobile it was to be used for to be patented in 1879, but it took a whopping 16 years to get the patent in 1895.
Selden was not successful at first producing automobiles, and sold his patents to William Whitney in 1899. Selden and Whitney collected royalties from other auto makers and started the Selden Motor Vehicle Company (in Rochester, of course), but in 1903 Henry Ford led other automakers in a lawsuit against Selden contesting his right to demand royalties. The case lasted an agonizing 8 years, and Selden won it, but Ford and friends appealed and won the appeal on the grounds that the Selden automobile was powered by an engine based on the Brayton gasoline engine while Ford and the others were using engines based on the Nikolaus Otto designed gasoline engine.
Selden turned to making trucks, calling the company The Selden Truck Sales Corporation until it was bought by Bethlehem Motor Truck Corporation in 1930. Selden died at the age of 75 in 1922, and although not often remembered for his pioneering work, he did manage to collect at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties on his patents. Note: Henry Ford once said that Selden contributed nothing to the progress of the auto industry and in fact the industry would have been farther advanced if Selden had never lived! (Ford was not a particularly nice person.)
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever a Ford automobile? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Goldstone, Lawrence. Drive!: Henry Ford, George Selden, and the Race to Invent the Auto Age. Ballantine Books, 2016.