Patent Reversal

On January 10, 1911, George Selden lost his 8-year legal battle brought by Henry Ford and four other car producers, which contended that they were not obligated to pay Selden royalties when they manufactured their automobiles.

Selden had filed for the patent on May 8, 1879, for an “improved road engine,” similar to a two-cycle auto engine which had been developed by George Brayton and shown at the Centennial Exposition in 1876. Selden, an attorney and inventor, had produced a lighter version of the Brayton model in 1878. However, the patent laws of that day allowed documentation to pre-date the patent so that his invention is listed as being made in 1877.

His application included not only the engine, but its use in a four-wheeled car. Thus, it was the first patent for an automobile in the United States, six years before Daimler and Benz built operable motor cars in Germany.

The witness that he chose for the application was a 24-year-old local bank teller, George Eastman. Selden, one of two amateur photographers in Rochester at the time, had taught Eastman photography when Eastman was just getting interested in the field. Selden went on to advise Eastman in patent matters for many years.

Selden received his patent on November 5, 1895. The patent laws also allowed for updates to be made within a two-year period so by sending in changes to one’s patent. and the 16-year approval process had been delayed by Selden, a patent attorney, through minor amendments, waiting for the auto industry to become more mainstream.

In 1895, the American auto industry was beginning to grow, and Selden, although he had never built a single car at that time, had a credible, government-backed claim that he had invented the automobile. In 1899, he sold his patent rights to William C. Whitney and they worked together to collect royalties from start-up automobile manufacturers. Selden negotiated a 0.75% royalty on all cars sold by the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers.

The 1911 victory by Henry Ford came with only one year left to run on Selden’s patent. However, Selden had collected license fees for every automobile manufactured until that time. It has been estimated that George Selden received several hundred thousand dollars in royalties during the fifteen years of his patent. Selden went on to focus the production of his company on trucks, renaming the company the Selden Truck Sales Corporation. George Selden died on January 17, 1922.

The Selden Road-Engine

George B. Selden 1846-1922

George B. Selden driving his automobile in 1905

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