August 1992

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George B. Selden's

Road Engine


Robert G. Koch

Rochester patent attorney George B. Selden's own patent, No. 549,160, for a "road engine" or automobile, filed on Nov. 5, 1895, was witnessed by George Eastman, whom he had represented earlier in connection with his photographic patents. Columbia University historian John Garraty, has labeled it, "The Invention That Wasn't."

"As a lad," according to Blake McKelvey, "George B. Selden had been influenced by the practical scientific interests of George Hand Smith [the Rochester inventor of a locomotive headlamp], and by the mechanical devices employed at the Morgan agricultural implements factory in Brockport, [near] his home in Clarkson." After he heard Morgan and his father, Judge Henry R. Selden, discuss the problems of road transportation, he continued to muse on them. He "studied for a time at Yale's Sheffield Scientific School" before working in his father's and uncle's law office.

According to a Rochester Historical Society article, Selden was spurred on by the 1870 national epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease that killed or disabled "the majority of horses, crippling the hack lines and street cars. [For example,]…only four [per cent of the] …horses owned by the Rochester Street Railway Company were fit for use. Judge Selden's carriage horses, which had escaped the disease, were loaned to the Fire Department."

Another Rochester inventor was working on an oil-burning steam engine, but Selden considered steampower unsuited for road use, because "of the weight of the water, the necessity of frequently refilling the water tank, the weight and bulk of the boiler, inability to start instantly when 'cold,' and other limitations…"

"[E]xisting gas engines, all of…the stationary type, with massive frames, guides, connecting rods, and enormous flywheels, were [also] useless… The lightest weighed [over half a ton] and developed 1 1/4 horse power; others weighed over a ton per horse power…"

[By 1877,] Selden "had arrived at a complete re-design of the gas engine… [T]he new engine, having six cylinders cast in one piece with the crank case, operated on the…two cycle…principle;…hol-low pistons were guided by the cylinder walls, while a closed crank case excluded dirt and retained the lubricating oil… These changes greatly reduced the weight and dispensed with many parts, while the continuous turning effort from the six cylinders…reduce[d] materially the size and weight of the flywheel. Reduction in weight of the reciprocating parts, and the use of large valves, increased the speed to many times that attained by any previous gas engine… The Selden engine weighed 370 pounds and developed 3 1/2 horse power, while the reduction in size enabled it to be placed on the front axles, leaving, to quote the patent, 'The carriage body substantially unobstructed for the conveyance of persons or goods.'

"Application for a United States Patent was filed on May 8, 1879, accompanied by a brass model of the vehicle, much of which …Selden made himself."

However, because Selden seems to have "lacked sufficient capital to promote the invention, the final issuance of the patent was delayed [until 1895, by which time]…inventors elsewhere began to catch up with him. A famous patent case was in the making, but," again, according to McKelvey, "it was a patent lawyer's business to know how a patent could be extended…[so]…he was able [to take]…full advantage of the two-year term then allowed between 'amendments' to patent papers…"

Still without capital, in 1899 Selden contracted with a Hartford, Connecticut, manufacturer of electric vehicles. The company gained control of the patent, and royalties were assured to Selden on each car manufactured under it. "The Hartford company…sought to exact a revenue from its gasoline competitors.

"A test suit for infringement…was decided in favor of…Selden. On March 5, 1903, when ten manufacturers joined hands as the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers…to pool their minor patents for mutual use, they acknowledged the validity of the Selden patent and agreed to pay royalites under it… The organization grew rapidly; and, by 1910, the eighty-seven members were building over ninety per cent of the automobiles produced in the United States.

"In 1905, during the patent litigation, the original engine was mounted on a vehicle, built in strict accordance with the patent. It was driven on the streets of both Rochester and New York City…, amply demonstrating that it was a practical automobile." In contemporary photographs Selden—trim and white-mustachioed beneath his derby—stands confidently beside the vehicle on the side of which is lettered "1877."

By the following year he had found half a million from local investors to start the Selden Motor Vehicle Company. In 1908 he drove one of his kerosene-fueled cars nonstop to New York, "in sixteen hours and nineteen minutes 'without even a puncture.'"

But Henry Ford and several other producers had earlier "refused or at least failed to join [the association] and fought [its] suits in a long and bitter court battle…"

"The United States Circuit Court on September 15, 1909, broadly sustained the patent as covering any gasoline-driven automobile, but on January 9, 1911, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals limited the scope of the patent…[to cover] an improved form of [two-cycle] engine and did not apply to automobiles with any other type of engine, which meant that all automobiles were held not to infringe, because all automobiles then made used the [four-cycle] engine."

Having garnered about $360,000 from royalties, Selden retired from his company, which continued for a while but was outstripped by manufacturers elsewhere.

© 1992, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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