The Original Patent Troll

On November 5, 1895, George B. Selden of Rochester, New York, patented “the automobile.” He didn’t call it an automobile since that name had not been established. Rather, he described it as a “road engine powered by a liquid hydrocarbon engine of the compression type.” (Translation: gasoline or its equivalent.) Undoubtedly, it was that last part that made the patent stick, since the only self-propelled vehicles before that were steam-driven.

The patent covered not only the mechanical details but also a “body adapted to the conveyance of persons or goods.” (The underline is the author’s, not the patent, to point out that the patent covered trucks as well as passenger cars.) This was a year before Daimler, billed as the world’s first truck, and two years before the first little Winton, believed to be America’s first truck, appeared.

Selden was granted the patent in 1895, though he sold it to the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) in 1899.

The EVC launched lawsuits against unlicensed manufacturers, forcing independent auto manufacturers to come together and form the Manufacturers Mutual Association (MMA). The MMA called for lower royalty payments and for control of the patent licensing.

There is some doubt that this initial Selden vehicle was ever built or ever really ran. But for the next 16 years every car and truck maker in the USA except Henry Ford and a few minor holdouts paid homage to “Uncle George.” Thus, the Selden patent was the most important single patent in automotive history. It was so important, in fact, that the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers (founded in 1900 and much later became the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association as is known today) changed its name in 1903 to the Licensed Automobile Manufacturers Association, concentrating on matters pertaining to the Selden Patent as they had finally secured the right to license the patent from the EVC.

Applications for ALAM membership, which included a Selden license, were approved only by the unanimous decision of the executive board. This approval system gave existing members the ability to exclude (and sue) competitors.

The exclusionary policy of the ALAM was ultimately what caused it to fail. When Henry Ford established Ford Motor Co., he attempted to secure a Selden license and was denied. On October 22, 1903, the ALAM filed against the Ford Motor Co., and what followed was essentially a messy public relations battle. The legal fight lasted eight years and ended in a victory for ALAM. In the judge’s verdict, he wrote that the patent covered any automobile propelled by an engine powered by gasoline vapor. Ford later appealed and won on the grounds that Selden’s patent applied only to two-cycle engines, not four.

The US Circuit Court of Appeals nullified the patent, royalty payments stopped, and vehicle makers were free to build without further restraints. Selden started to build cars in 1906 and trucks in 1922. Many were excellent products and a few survive today.

About the Patent:
There were several drawings attached to the patent papers (complete documentation is on file at ATHS) but the two most important and interesting are reproduced on (location). Without bogging down on all the numbers and letters, a few of the highlights are easy to spot. Restructured in modern terminology, the patent featured:
• Cab over engine design
• Front-wheel drive
• Ring and pinion steering gear
• Two independent braking systems
• Soft, full elliptic springs
• 360-degree driver vision
• A handy cargo box centered on the rear axle
• 90% of the empty weight on the front axle
• A fifth wheel (of sorts)
• A non-slip differential
• Full reverse by rotating the axle
• A 3-cylinder horizontal engine with effective air cleaner
• A headlight

The steering wheel was the larger one at the “H” and the smaller wheels at the “I” operated the throttle and other engine controls. The air filter is described thus: “The inlet valve “J” is provided with a dust strainer composed of fine wire cause, cloth or other material for preventing the entry of dust into the apparatus, and a bend in the entry pipe may be filled with a liquid either with or without an absorbent material to further purify the entering air from floating particles.”

There is little doubt that Selden was a clever patent lawyer. He knew how to cover all the bases. For instance, there were many all-encompassing phrases in the patent such as:

• “Any convenient type of engine may be employed.”
• “There may be an convenient number of cylinders”
• “The engine may be connected to either steering or trailing axles…but I prefer to drive the steering wheels in vehicles of this type.”

Finally, there is one sentence of more than 100 words which describes the advantages over steam-powered vehicles that eds with this statement: “…[the vehicle] is capable of being managed by persons of ordinary skill at a minimum of trouble and expense, and…possesses sufficient power to overcome any usual inclination.”