Skip to main content
No. 1713:
Seldon's Automobile

Today, patents and public relations. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

George B. Selden filed the first patent for a combustion-powered automobile in 1879. Selden was a Civil-War veteran. After the War he studied engineering at Yale. The great American scientist J. Willard Gibbs was one of his teachers there. Selden had to drop out when his father died, so he studied law and passed the bar exam in 1871. He knew his patent could protect him for only seventeen years, once it was issued. It was unlikely that he could produce cars and create a market for them that soon.

Selden's abilities as both an inventor and a lawyer far outstripped his talent as a production engineer. He kept his patent alive by filing amendments to delay its issue. Meanwhile, the Duryea brothers, Olds (of the Oldsmobile), and many others created workable cars. Duryea cars were on the market while Selden was still struggling to produce one.

Selden's patent surfaced in 1903 as a roadblock to the successful makers. They formed the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, and they came to terms with Selden by paying a modest royalty on each car they sold. Well, all but one did.

At a meeting of the Association, Henry Couzens, business manager for a minor builder named Henry Ford, shouted, "Tell Selden to take his patent and go to Hell with it!" "Couzens has answered you," said Ford, and they went to the courts. Ford painted the Selden people as a great corporate trust, trying to crush him.

He finally won his case in 1911. By then, the thirty-year-old Selden patent looked pretty antediluvian. By then, Ford had made twenty times as much money as the so-called Selden Monopoly. And that was still before he'd invented the assembly line.

Olds was first to mass-produce cars using interchangeable parts. Four years after his patent victory, Ford adapted Olds' methods in an assembly line. Then he started to make money on a scale no one had yet imagined. Selden was forgotten, and Ford became an American legend. In 1934, Ford received a letter that claimed to be from the notorious Clyde Barrow, of Bonnie and Clyde fame. It said,

Dear Sir,

While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasent been strickly legal it don't hurt enything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V-8.

Yours truly,
Clyde Champion Barrow.

Whether the letter was real or fake, it caught the temper of the times. Clyde Barrow and Henry Ford had two things in common: They were both inordinately interested in making money, and they both cultivated their images as American folk heroes.

And Selden? Well, perhaps he was a burr under the saddle that helped make it all happen.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Greenleaf, W., Monopoly on wheels. Detroit: The Wayne State University Press, 1961.

Phillips, J. N., Running with Bonnie and Clyde: The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996, pg. 194.

Milner, E. R., The Lives and Times of Bonnie and Clyde. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996, pg. 101.

This is a greatly rewritten version of Episode 207.

Selden in his "Benzine Buggy"
From The Gasoline Automobile, 1920