Founding Fathers of the Automotive Industry - George Baldwin Selden

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George Baldwin Selden

George Baldwin Selden

 1846 - 1932

George Baldwin Selden

George Baldwin Selden was born in 1846, the son of a former judge and lieutenant-governor of New York State. Selden was descended from one Thomas Selden, who had emigrated from Kent to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1636. The boy received a classical education at Rochester University and Yale, although he was, by inclination, an engineer.

The Civil War cut short his studies, and after service in the Sixth New York Cavalry and the Hospital Corps - interrupted by a dash to Europe where his father had been taken ill - Selden intended to pursue scientific studies. His father insisted that he should study law, though, and in 1871 Selden was admitted to the bar. However, he did not let his legal career - or his marriage - interfere with his talent for inventing, and the early 1870s saw a flow of ingenious devices as diverse as rubber bicycle tyres, typewriters, machines for making barrel hoops - and plans for a horseless carriage.

The Internal-Combustion Engine

Initially, he thought of using steam power, but by 1873 had decided that the internal-combustion engine, although in its infancy, was the power unit of the future. He seems to have built at least one unsuccessful model before turning to the existing Brayton two-cycle engine as the basis for his motive unit, and in 1876 devised a three-cylinder engine of this type (which, apparently, never ran for more than five minutes, or on more than one cylinder).

Furthermore, he designed a vehicle to take this motor, and then proceeded to draw up a patent covering not only the engine but all the important elements of the design, using his knowledge of patent law to cover any practicable machine which might be invented while he was working on his own vehicle. Thus, he would have the monopoly of the nascent motor industry. Moreover, Selden did not permit his patent, submitted on 8 May, 1879, to be issued, but kept it alive during the next sixteen years by filing a series of amendments which caused the patent to be postponed time and time again.

Such a delaying procedure was then quite legal, and enabled Selden to keep abreast of any potential developments in automobile engineering. But he really did want to build a car, and was only frustrated by lack of capital. He nearly made it: a Rochester business friend was prepared to put up $5000 to allow Selden to construct a prototype when the inventor made an unguarded remark. 'Jim,' he said, 'you and I will live to see more carriages on Main Street run by motor than are now drawn by horses'. His horror-stricken friend gasped: 'George, you are crazy, and I won't have anything to do with your scheme!'

Twenty-five years later, the two men met again. Jim admitted he had been wrong, and offered to shake hands and forget the past. Selden, ignoring the outstretched hand, snapped out: 'I wasn't as crazy as you and the other fools said I was!' and walked away in disgust. Selden finally judged that the time was ripe to issue his patent in 1895, and it appeared on 5 November that year, to be referred to in the annual report of the United States Commissioner of Patents as: 'the pioneer invention in the application of the compression-gas engine to road or horseless-carriage use.'

The Selden Patent

Selden's patent, No. 549, 160, was a masterpiece of inexactitude, covering all the basic principles of the motor vehicle in a series of broad brush strokes which ingeniously omitted nothing, yet also failed to particularise any one item in detail. He claimed that the object of his invention was 'the production of a safe, simple and cheap road locomotive, light in weight, easy to control and possessed of sufficient power to overcome any ordinary inclination'. Fundamental to this invention was the use of a 'liquid-hydrocarbon engine of the compression type'. Although Selden had still not built a vehicle, he claimed that his engine and vehicle were practical (although in the main a combination of tried components) and that, as no-one had previously been granted a patent for an operable vehicle, his patent was basic.

The Pope Manufacturing Company

Therefore all machines built after 1879 were covered by it, and from the date of issue could not be built, sold or even used without his permission. At that stage, however, Selden's threats were hollow: without sufficient capital to defend his patent in the courts, he had to bide his time until a backer could be found. He began negotiations for possible finance in 1899, but within months one of the biggest manufacturing concerns in the motor industry had played right into his hands. The Pope Manufacturing Company was in the process of setting up a multi-million dollar company in conjunction with a group of New York investors led by William C. Whitney, former Secretary of the Navy and, as a matter of form, asked their patent attorney, Herman F. Cuntz, to investigate any patents which might affect the venture.

Cuntz already knew of the Selden patent, and had been very favourably impressed by it, but his enthusiasm had been pooh-poohed by the engineering experts of the Pope company. Whitney, however, proved a more receptive audience and, on learning that, although Selden was in the process of negotiating a $250,000 investment with five Wall Street men, but would prefer his 'master patent' to be administered by a motor manufacturer, decided to approach Selden directly, and an option valid untiI January 1900 was obtained. This would give the Pope-Whitney interests a 'definitive licence' (which amounted to an assignment of the patent) for $10,000 plus a percentage of whatever royalties could be collected.

George SeIden poses in his three-cylinder tourer of 1877
George SeIden poses in his three-cylinder tourer of 1877; apparently, this' car never ran for more than five minutes, or on more than one cylinder.

Dugald Clerk

The eminent British gas-engine expert Dugald Clerk proclaimed the patent's validity, and the Pope-Whitney group, the Columbia & Electric Vehicle Company, signed the agreement in November 1899. The Electric Vehicle Company was reorganised as an $18,000,000 corporation, controlling the Columbia & EVC and New Haven Carriage Company, and an apparently watertight case was prepared against any offending company by the EVC's lawyers, Betts, Betts, Sheffield & Betts. In June 1900, the warnings went out: 'Our clients inform us that you are manufacturing and advertising for sale vehicles which embody the invention 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 therefore.'

At first, the motor industry treated the Selden claims as 'too preposterous to merit serious consideration', but the following month the first legal suits were instituted, against the Buffalo Gasoline Motor Company, a maker of parts, and the Winton Motor Carriage Company, the most prominent manufacturer of gasoline cars. More suits were filed, and a defence organisation formed by the motor industry; but it lacked any sort of teeth in the face of the EVC millions. 'No compromise!' was the battle-cry of the association, but by November 1902 the members were full of compromise, agreeing to negotiate a settlement with the EVe.

The Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers

The terms were favourable enough: Winton would not have to pay royalties on vehicles produced prior to the settlement, and could keep back from future payments an amount equal to the costs incurred in litigation with the EVC, and similar arrangements applied to other manufacturers embroiled with the EVe. Furthermore, an association of licensed manufacturers would be set up to administer the patent, offering certain advantages to all makers who paid the licence fees. The EVC wanted 5 per cent of the retail price of each car sold, but the makers thought this was excessive, so the ten leading manufacturers put $2500 each into a fighting fund, sought out Whitney and settled an agreement which cut the royalty to 2.5 per cent, of which 2/5 went to the EVC, 2/5 was paid into the makers' grouping, the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers and 1/5 went to Selden.

The aims of the ALAM were generally beneficial: their income was to be used for the good of the industry, including a free exchange of technical information, and a move towards standardisation in the manufacture of cars. But the ALAM could choose who was eligible for a licence and who was not; and thus it represented a brake on free enterprise. After exploratory talks with ALAM officials, Henry Ford, who had just established the Ford Motor Company, decided to go it alone, and offered to protect 'Dealers, Importers, Agents and Users of our Gasoline Automobiles' against any prosecution for alleged infringement of patents. Hardly surprisingly, the ALAM issued a suit against Ford and a couple of import agents.

The American Motor Car Manufacturers Association

The case dragged on for years, and involved over a million dollars in legal expenses, while Ford was prominent in the organisation of a rival trade body, the American Motor Car Manufacturers' Association. The litigation culminated in the ALAM interests building two cars based on Selden's patent specification, and bearing a spurious date of 1877 on the bodywork, while Ford constructed a car based on the 1863 to prove that workable cars had existed before Selden's patent. The result was eventual victory for commonsense. The court judged the patent valid, but only in respect of vehicles powered by the obsolete Brayton engine.

On 10 January 1911, Henry Ford's teenaged son, Edsel, recorded in his diary: 'HEARD THE NEWS, WON THE SELDON SUIT ... Went to Ford Banquet. Good Time. Fifty there altogether. ' It was really a hollow victory, however, (although it established Ford as a popular folk hero, the David who had slain a monopolistic Goliath), for the truth of the matter was that the Selden patent's time had almost run out when the Ford victory was won: its life from the date of issue was seventeen years, so that its validity would have expired on 5 November, 1912 whether Ford had fought it or not.

There is a wry footnote to the embattled history of the Selden Patent, though. Under the conditions of the ALAM, the number of licensed manufacturers was restricted to those already established, so no new manufacturer could, in theory, ever qualify! When, in 1906, Selden himself wanted to become a manufacturer, he had to wait until an ALAM company expired before he could take it over and obtain a licence to build under his own patent! Certainly the patent did not make Selden a rich man. His earnings from royalties are estimated to have been around $1,200,000, but as he is reported as having paid half this sum to George Day, manager of the ALAM, he only made some $600,000, and possibly as little as $200,000. He died in 1932, the forgotten man of the American motor industry.
The early George Selden prototype Lenoir
The early George Selden prototype Lenoir.
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