An automaker can legally protect a model’s name, its components, or even its design. But is it possible to patent the automobile itself? Back in 1895, someone did try.
He almost succeeded, too, until he crossed paths with a man even more stubborn than he was: Henry Ford.
The man was George Selden, a patent lawyer from Rochester, New York. He was fascinated with transportation, and like many men of the day, he tinkered with the idea of building a “horseless carriage.” He even came up with an engine design, based on a factory machine he’d seen, and had it partially built and tested by a local machine shop.
Although he didn’t actually attach his engine to a buggy at the time, he drew up a set of plans for such an idea and filed it with the patent office on May 8, 1879. None of the hypothetical vehicle’s components were new, but no one had ever put them all together and patented the whole thing. One of the two witnesses who signed the drawing, interestingly enough, was Rochester resident George Eastman, who would later make history with his Eastman Kodak camera company.
Selden’s patent diagram from 1895
Inventors often manipulated their patent applications under the rules of the day, and Selden managed to delay his until November 5, 1895. It would then stand for 17 years. Some historians believe he just wanted to profit from the patent, but it appears he did try to find funding to start a car company. He gave that as an explanation for delaying his application.
In 1899, New York lawyer William Whitney decided to get into the taxicab business, and joined forces with the Pope Manufacturing Company, which was making Columbia electric vehicles. The new company was named the Electric Vehicle Company and would make electric cabs. Whitney knew about the patent, and when he heard that speculators wanted to buy it, he approached Selden.
Selden apparently figured it was better to manage his patent than sell it to opportunists, and he gave an exclusive license to the Electric Vehicle Company: $15 royalty per car, with a minimum of $5,000 per year. But when the cars failed to sell, Whitney realized he could make money by getting other automakers to pay royalties on his exclusive patent license.
He sent patent infringement letters to several car companies. When the letters were ignored, Whitney’s lawyers carefully chose their targets. In 1900, they sued Winton Motor Carriage, the country’s largest automaker; the Buffalo Gasolene Motor Company (as the fuel was often spelled at the time), which made parts; and Smith & Mabley, which imported cars from Europe.
Fearful of lawsuits, several auto companies applied for licenses under the patent. Whitney’s royalties were high. To get the clout needed for negotiation, Packard and Oldsmobile, two prominent early automakers, approached other manufacturers, and ten of them combined into an organization called the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, or ALAM.
In 1903, ALAM and Whitney came to terms. Winton Motor Carriage would apply for a license under the Selden patent, and Whitney would drop the lawsuit. All ALAM members would pay royalties to Whitney and Selden on their cars, with a small portion going back to the association, and only ALAM members could be licensed for the patent.
Henry Ford tried to get in. But he was just starting out in 1903 — his game-changing Model T was still five years away — and ALAM turned him down. That didn’t sit well with Ford.
Ford’s Model T…
Selden and Whitney weren’t the only ones benefiting from the patent. Cars built under the license carried a small brass plaque stating this, and ALAM ran ads warning drivers they would be sued for patent infringement if they bought unlicensed cars. The association figured this would bring larger companies under its fold, increasing its revenue, while putting smaller competitors out of business. By the end of the year, there were 27 members.
But they underestimated Ford, who actually wanted ALAM to take action against him — he could use the publicity. On October 22, 1903, Whitney and Selden obliged, bringing suit against the Ford Motor Company and its sales agent in New York City. Two other Ford-related lawsuits, one against a company simply because it bought a Ford, were bundled into the initial action.
The case took six years. Selden had to actually build a car to his patent, and he produced two. One, made by Pope’s factory in Connecticut, looked nothing like the original drawings.
The second one, built in Rochester, did resemble the patent diagrams. The partially-finished engine he’d had built in 1877 was completed and installed in it, and Selden put “1877” in metal numbers on the buggy’s side, even though it had recently been completed. But during the demonstration, he had trouble starting it, and it didn’t run very well, hurting Selden’s case. The vehicle still exists, and ironically enough, now resides in the Henry Ford Museum.
The Selden Motor Buggy found in the Henry Ford Museum
By this point, the ALAM was shaky now, too. Its members began demanding lower royalty rates, and some, including General Motors, stopped paying entirely.
That all changed in 1909, when the court ruled in favour of the patent. Several new companies applied for membership so they could license their cars.
Ford appealed though, and this time, things went much faster. After hearing arguments, the judges reversed the decision on January 9, 1911. Selden had used a Brayton two-stroke external compression engine in his patent, but automakers were using versions of the Otto four-stroke engine. The judge ruled Selden could demand royalties from any company building a car with a Brayton engine — but none of them were.
The court also decided that ALAM had to pay the cost of Ford’s appeal. Still, the association invited him to its banquet at the New York Auto Show, where he was greeted with cheers for ending the royalties. It was all largely symbolic by this point, since the patent would expire in less than two years, but he’d fought the good fight.
Surprisingly, Ford and Selden spoke highly of each other, even after the decision, although Selden always thought he’d won the case from a moral standpoint. He died on January 17, 1922 and is buried in his hometown of Rochester, forever famous for a fantastic failure.