Whose Motor Was It Really?

This article from the April 15, 1911 issue of the Saturday Evening Post was featured in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition: Automobiles in America!

Patent attorney George B. Selden’s 1879 design for the gas-powered internal combustion engine would for a time command fees from the entire car business. That’s remarkable considering automobiles would not be built for sale until the late 1890s. In this article, published in 1911, just months after the patent was finally struck down, the Post describes the extraordinary lengths Selden took to make sure his patent would hold up once cars became a practical reality.

George B. Selden was a patent attorney practicing in Rochester when, in 1876, he conceived the idea of a carriage propelled by a gasoline engine. He led an application for a patent on May 8, 1879, for a “road engine.” Had that patent been issued in the regular course of patent office events it would have expired about the year 1896, just when the first motor cars were seen in our streets, and Selden would have had absolutely nothing to show for whatever time, money, and thought he had spent on his invention. But Selden, being a patent lawyer, knew more than the ordinary inventor. He knew that he was ahead of the times, that he must file an application for a patent to forestall any subsequent inventor who also would devise a “road engine,” and yet he realized that no patent must issue to him before the world was ready to pay him royalties. Under the law that was in force up to 1897, an application for a patent could always be prosecuted within two years of the last official action.

The record of the case in the patent office shows that the application was rejected on May 31, 1879, and that an amendment was not led until May 26, 1881, nearly two years later. A second rejection on June 17, 1881, was followed on May 15, 1883, by another amendment. An official letter sent to Selden on June 15, 1885, was not acted upon until June 13, 1887, only two days before the expiration of the two years of grace allowed by law. Another rejection on June 21, 1887, was answered by a letter dated April 13, 1889, and by an amendment filed on June 10, 1889. The original specification and claims were now such a tangled mass of corrections that the patent office demanded a “smooth copy” on June 14, 1889. Although the case was ready for issue, the demand was not complied with until June 6, 1891, nine days before the statutory limit. An official letter, which required the filing of a new oath, was not answered until June 28, 1892. The case was then transferred to another examiner, by whom some of the claims previously allowed were rejected on July 29, 1893. An amendment in reply was not led until April 1, 1895. Finally on November 5, 1895, the patent was definitely issued, but without a single one of the original 19 claims.

Obtaining a patent is one thing; earning respect for it is another. Selden’s patent was always looked upon askance by automobile makers and laughed at by patent lawyers. Its validity was ever in doubt. Yet it was made to earn a fortune despite the cloud that hovered over it. After passing into the control of a manufacturing company, it was eventually acquired by the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers. That association hit upon the ingenious expedient of charging such a small royalty for the right to manufacture under this patent of doubtful validity that most automobile makers decided to pay rather than to engage in litigation that would prove a thousand times more expensive and would probably drag along for a decade. The royalty paid by the licensees has uctuated from 1.25 percent to a fraction of 1 percent. Small as this tribute was, the sum total must have amounted to several million dollars.

Revolutionists in invention are as little likely to die rich as are revolutionists in politics, and the guillotine of the business world is ever ready to cut short the career of the Robespierre of mechanics.

—“The Business Side of Invention,”

The Saturday Evening Post, April 15, 1911