The battle between George Selden and Henry Ford

This patent represents a forgotten episode in the history of the automobile. The question of who invented the motor car is an open one - Ford, Daimler, Duryea, Cugnot all lay claim to the title of "Father of the Automobile" - but you will seldom hear the name of patent attorney George Selden of Rochester, New York, mentioned.

Selden applied for a patent on the "Road Engine" in 1879. Sensing that the time was not right for a horseless carriage, he delayed issuance of the patent until 1895, by which time a young automobile industry was growing in the USA. Although he had no interest in manufacturing his invention, he was very interested in benefiting from it. Under threat of suit, almost all of the manufacturers took out licenses from Selden, or from the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM), to whom he sold the patent. In fact, on most cars built during the next ten or fifteen years you will find a small brass plaque reading "Manufactured under Selden Patent."

There was just one holdout, a young manufacturer named Henry Ford. Selden sued Ford, and the lawsuit dragged on for years. During that time the ALAM took out magazine ads, threatening to sue anyone who bought an unlicensed car - some advised people "don't buy a lawsuit with your new automobile." Here's a sample ALAM advertisement, claiming that the Selden patent was so broad that any practical car must infringe:

Ford countered with his own ads, disputing the patent, and offering to indemnify anyone who was actually sued by the ALAM:

It was reported that at one point during the trial,  an automobile race was being organized outside the windows of the courthouse. Ford's lawyer looked out the window and said to the judge, "your honor, I see a Winton, and a Duryea, and many Fords out there - but not one single Selden!" He was right, of course - Selden was a patent attorney, not a car builder. In the course of the suit Selden did build a car according to the patent (for the first time, apparently), and it managed to stagger along under its own power for a short while before expiring. Finally, only one year before it was to expire, the Selden patent was declared invalid (except as to cars powered by the Brayton-type external-compression two-stroke engine described in the patent, which Selden's own expert testified at trial was not actually used by anyone making cars at that time).

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