The Selden Patent and its role in auto history

1905 car
This photo from the May 24, 1906 issues of The Automobile magazine shows a car built in 1905, according to the original 1879 Selden patent. It ran, but not very well, or very far. (Sam Moore submitted photo)

In 1872, a Boston man named George Brayton patented an internal combustion engine that featured a double set of cylinders.

Air was sucked into the first cylinder on the intake stroke and compressed on a compression stroke. The compressed air was forced into a mixing chamber where fuel was added, and then into the second cylinder where it was ignited by a flame, producing the power stroke, and then exhausted on the exhaust stroke.

Brayton exhibited his engine at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, and it was successfully used by John Holland in 1881 to power the first modern working submarine. It was also used in an omnibus at about the same time but was unsuccessful in this application.

George Selden, from Rochester, New York, was a patent lawyer and an inventor who had been tinkering with a self-propelled road vehicle. His experiments had been with steam engines, but he had determined that the steam engines of the day were too heavy for the light machines he envisioned.

Selden attended the Exposition and became interested in Brayton’s engine, although it was still too heavy for his purposes.

The patent

Selden, with the help of a couple of machinists, developed a 400-pound engine based on the Brayton engine and applied for a patent in 1879 which included a 4-wheeled vehicle with a steering wheel, clutch and brake.

Being an experienced patent attorney, Selden periodically filed amendments to the application and it remained “patent pending” until a patent was finally issued in late 1895. This was about the time the American car industry was really beginning to stir and Selden’s patent had 17 years to run from the issue date.

A big-time promoter, William Whitney, joined with an early auto builder, the Pope Manufacturing Company, and in 1899 formed a firm called the Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) that acquired the exclusive license to use Selden’s patent for a royalty of $15 per vehicle and a guaranteed minimum payment of $5,000 a year.


The following year the bigger gasoline car builders received letters from EVC lawyers that read: “Our clients inform us that you are manufacturing and advertising for sale vehicles that embody the scope of the Selden patent. We notify you of this infringement and request that you desist from the same and make suitable compensation to the owner of the patent.”

At first there was no response, so EVC began to file lawsuits, and reluctantly the car builders fell into line and agreed to pay the royalties.

Initially, EVC demanded 5 percent per car, which the leading manufacturers, chief among them Winton, regarded as way too much. They banded together into the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufactures (ALAM) and held firm at 1 1/2 percent. EVC finally gave in and each car built under the license had a brass ALAM tag affixed to it.

Henry Ford

By 1903, Henry Ford was ready to begin making a low-cost car and applied to the ALAM for a license, which was rejected. Apparently ALAM members, who were selling expensive cars, feared Ford’s low-cost offerings and told Ford he could have the license if he limited his production to 10,000 cars per year and sold them for at least $1,000 each.

Jim Couzens, Ford’s right hand man, told them to go to hell, and he and Henry walked out.
Ford continued to build cars and Selden and EVC sued. The trial dragged on for nearly six years while Ford was cranking out cars by the tens of thousands and getting richer all the time.

In fact, someone calculated that if he had paid the Selden royalty it would have cost him $12.50 per car, but the cost of the litigation was only $6.80. When the judge finally ruled in 1909, it was against defendants Ford and the French auto firm of Panhard et Levassor, who were selling cars in the U.S.

The defendants promptly appealed, and during the appeal hearing one of the Panhard lawyers managed to debunk the testimony of one of the ALAM’s “expert witnesses.”

Early in 1911 the appeals court rendered their Solomon-like decision. They said that while Selden’s patent was valid — for a car with a Brayton type engine — there was no infringement by Ford and the others because their cars used Otto type engines and were vastly different than the single Selden that had been built.

The court even added, “The defendants, neither legally nor morally owe him (Selden) anything.”

The ALAM and Selden, who had already collected several hundred thousand dollars in royalties, although much of it was spent on legal fees, decided not to appeal the new verdict as the patent would expire in less than two years.

Ford sweeps market

The ALAM disbanded and Ford’s Model T swept the low-cost market. All through the long trial most of the working people in the country had been rooting for Ford.

When the Selden people threatened to sue anyone who bought a car from an unlicensed manufacturer, Ford promised to indemnify them. He paid his workers well.

At the 1905 auto show in New York, Ford exhibited the little 4-cylinder Model N roadster priced at just $500 at a time when most cars sold for $1,000 to $2,000, and after the Model T came out in 1909 he slowly reduced the price until it was within the reach of most wage earners.

The auto industry

So was the Selden patent brouhaha a good thing or not? It certainly made Henry Ford and his cars a household name and there was even talk during the 1920s of him running for President.

The efforts of other manufacturers to develop cars without infringing the patent probably advanced the automobile at a faster rate than it might have without such an incentive.

The almost constant newspaper coverage of the trial and all the legal maneuvering made the public acutely aware of the auto industry and in many folks undoubtedly sparked the desire to own a car.

Anyway, it’s part of the country’s automobile history and I find it interesting.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.



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