The question of who invented the automobile is open. The first invention patent on anything that resembled a motor car is issued to .....

Ford? Daimler? Duryea? Cugnot? They all lay claim to the title of “Father of the Automobile. But no - the invention patent for “The Road Engine” was applied for in 1879 by whom? A patent attorney, George Selden, of Rochester, New York. Ever hear of a Seldon? Me neither.

Yep. A patent attorney did it. He apparently was a cagy codger. He delayed his patent issuance until 1895, because he thought the public wasn’t ready for a “horseless carriage.” By 1895 the automobile industry was in growth mode.

Being a patent attorney, Selden had no interest in actually manufacturing his invention. He was only interested in benefitting from his patent. Under threat of a lawsuit, almost all of the existing 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 from 1895 you will find a small brass plaque reading "Manufactured under Selden Patent."

There was one big holdout. I don’t think anyone threatened Henry Ford. Selden sued Ford, and, as is usual, the lawsuit dragged on for years [that is part of the lawsuit game - play until one side runs of of money. If both sides have lots - the suit goes on and on].

Ads were taken out by ALAM threatening to sue anyone who bought an unlicensed car [patent license - not registration]. ALAM and Selden were claiming his patent was so broad that it covered every auto being made.

At some point during the trial - it was reported that an automobile race was organized outside the windows of the courthouse. Ford’s attorney is said to have looked out the window and told the judge - “your Honor, I see a Winton, and a Duryea, and many Fords out there - but not one single Selden.”

And he was right. Selden was a patent attorney - not a car builder. During the lawsuit - Selden did have a car built according to the patent claims - and it managed to stagger on it’s own power for a little while before it expired gracefully.

Then - one year before it was to expire - the Selden invention patent for the “Road Engine” was declared invalid - with the exception of cars that were powered by the Brayton-type external-compression two-stroke engine that was described in the Selden invention patent.

Of course - it was shown at trial - by Selden’s own expert - the Brayton engine was not actually used at the time by any of the other manufacturers.

One of the reasons for telling this story is - apart from it being about one of America’s most used inventions - is to show the power of the invention patent. It shows that the inventor doesn’t actually have to manufacture his invention - but he has the right to stop anyone else from manufacturing anything that is covered by his claims in his invention patent.

It also shows that the proper knowledge can be dangerous - at least it was to an entire industry. The power of the threats from a patent attorney was enough to have nearly a whole industry roll over - and pay someone who had the foresight to file for an invention patent - even though he had no interest in manufacturing anything himself.

This story also shows that nobody told Henry Ford what to do.

If you are interested in American invention history - look into this: