Thursday 8th May 1879
George Baldwin Selden of Rochester, New York filed the first US patent for an automobile. It was issued almost two decades later on 5 November 1898 for a unique combination of an internal-combustion engine and a road vehicle. Shortly thereafter the fledgling American auto industry began its first efforts and George Selden, despite never having gone into production with a working model of an automobile, had a credible claim to have patented an automobile in 1895. In 1899 he sold his patent rights to William C. Whitney, who proposed manufacturing electric-powered taxicabs as the Electric Vehicle Company, EVC, for a royalty of US$15 per car with a minimum annual payment of US$5,000. Whitney and Selden then worked together to collect royalties from other budding automobile manufacturers. He was initially successful, negotiating a 0.75% royalty on all cars sold by the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers and began his own car company in Rochester under the name Selden Motor Vehicle Company. However, Henry Ford, owner of the Ford Motor Company, founded in Detroit, Michigan in 1903, and four other car makers resolved to contest the patent infringement suit filed by Selden and EVC. The legal fight lasted eight years, generating a case record of 14,000 pages. Ford’s testimony included the comment, “It is perfectly safe to say that George Selden has never advanced the automobile industry in a single particular…and it would perhaps be further advanced than it is now if he had never been born.” The case was heavily publicized in the newspapers of the day, and ended in a victory for Selden. In his decision, the judge wrote that the patent covered any automobile propelled by an engine powered by gasoline vapor. Posting a bond of US$350,000, Ford appealed, and on January 10, 1911 won his case based on an argument that the engine used in automobiles was not based on George Brayton’s engine, the Brayton engine which Selden had improved, but on the Otto engine. This stunning defeat, with only one year left to run on the patent, destroyed Selden’s income stream. He focused production of his car company on trucks, renaming his company the Selden Truck Sales Corporation. It survived in that form until 1930 when it was purchased by the Bethlehem Truck Company. Selden suffered a stroke in late 1921 and died aged 75 on January 17, 1922. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester. It is estimated he received several hundred thousand dollars in royalties.