Today in Transportation History – 1879: The First US Automobile Patent

A few years before European automotive pioneers such as Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler introduced their own versions of the “horseless carriage,” a lawyer and inventor from Rochester, New York, named George B. Selden filed the first U.S. patent for an automobile.

Selden, who was 32 at the time, submitted a patent application for what was basically a road vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. Notwithstanding his love for horses as well as his service during the Civil War in the Sixth U.S. Cavalry, Selden became intrigued with the potential of horseless means of transport for the nation’s roads. This led him to experiment with developing something other than the stationary engines that had already been tested without success by others to operate a vehicle and propel it into motion.

Selden’s patent drawing.

Selden eventually found himself inspired by a large internal combustion engine invented by George Brayton and displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. By the following year, Selden had designed a smaller and modified version of that engine. His application outlined details not just about his version of the engine but also its use in a four-wheeled vehicle. The application was accompanied by a drawing of this combination. The drawing was signed by two witnesses on Selden’s behalf. The first was W.M. Rebasz, Jr., who served as Selden’s patent draftsman, and the second was a clerk employed in an office in the same building where Selden worked. The clerk’s name was George Eastman, and he would someday become world-famous in his own right as the person who revolutionized photography by founding the Eastman Kodak Company and inventing roll film.

It took Selden 16 years, five months, and 28 days before he was finally issued Patent No. 549,160 for his invention. Historians have attributed that long and tedious process to various legal technicalities and a steady stream of amendments to the original application by Selden. While these revisions were rooted in large part in Selden’s efforts to keep pace with technological breakthroughs and innovations in the ensuing years, it has also been credibly pointed out that he was trying unsuccessfully all that time to line up capital for the production and sale of automobiles using his design.

Selden’s patent eventually ended up with the Connecticut-based Columbia and Electric Vehicle Company. The company agreed to pay Selden $10,000 for the rights to his patent and also a royalty for every automobile based on his design. Selden and that company, however, had to contend with a drawn-out legal battle over patent infringement with Henry Ford and other competing automobile manufacturers. It was finally ruled in court that Selden’s patent was not being infringed upon because it only applied to automobiles that were driven by the specific type of engine described in his patent.

Despite that serious legal setback and the havoc it wreaked on his income stream, Selden – who died in 1922 at the age of 75 — is still believed to have received several hundred thousand dollars in royalties for his invention. He could also plausibly lay claim as the originator of the automobile and the internal combustion engine that actually moved it forward on the road, and he did; the advertising slogan for the Selden Motor Vehicle Company that he started in 1906 was “Made By the Father of Them All.”

For further information on George B. Selden and his automobile patent, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_B._Selden and https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/george-selden-patents-gas-powered-car.

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