Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


IN 1879, GEORGE B. Selden patented the automobile. Selden wasn’t an engineer. He was a tinkerer, though, and more important, a patent attorney.


George B. Selden, 1846-1922.

Selden recognized the value of delaying the document’s issuance until it had commercial value, and his all-inclusive patent for a hydrocarbon-fueled “road engine” was finally issued in 1895.


This pamphlet, dated January 16, 1900, shows the Selden “road engine” on its cover. Though it’s titled Electrical Patents, its back cover reads “on Carriages, Propelled by Electricity, Gas, Steam, Spring and Other Power.”

In 1899, Selden assigned exclusive license of his patent to the Electric Vehicle Co. in exchange for a royalty of $15/vehicle and a guaranteed annual minimum of $5000 (worth about $420/car and $140,000 in today’s dollars). EVC, in turn, brought suit against the Winton Motor Carriage Co., at the time one of the country’s largest automakers, and supplier Buffalo Gasolene Motor Co. (Note, in the early days, “gasoline” had no uniform spelling.)

Both companies tried to get the cases dismissed. However, Judge John R. Hazel took a broad view of the Selden patent and overruled Buffalo. (Remember his name; he’ll recur in our tale.) As a result, Winton and other automakers made a deal with EVC that created the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers.


This plaque identified a car as being A.L.A.M.-produced.

By 1904, 30 automakers were paying EVC royalties, 1.25 percent of price per vehicle sold, 1/5 of which went to Selden.

Henry Ford was not among them.


Henry Ford, 1863-1947.

In October 1903, EVC and Selden sued Ford and his New York City agent. “Don’t buy a lawsuit with your car,” read an A.L.A.M. ad.

“Don’t Give $600 To the Bogey Man” retaliated a Ford ad. “When you buy a Ford Motor Car from John Wanamaker, you are guaranteed against any trouble with the Trust. That’s all the insurance any man will want.”


As the fight intensified, Ford provided its buyers with insurance indemnifying them against “any licensee…of Letters Patent…commonly known as the “Selden Patent….”

In all, the court actions dragged on from 1903 until 1911, the record containing more than 14,000 pages. As part of his case, Selden finally built two cars, one of them profiting from enhancements beyond the original patent. (Store this “product enhancement” nugget for later in this two-part tale.) Neither car ran very well.


Fabricated as part of the court case, Selden’s car barely ran despite product enhancements.

As one of its priceless encounters, Judge C.M. Hough interrupted proceedings with a request: “Someone will have to explain to me what the liquid hydrocarbon gas engine is.”

At another, Dugald Clerk, an expert witness for Selden, declared “A non-compression Lenoir engine could not possibly propel a vehicle… If proved otherwise, it would be reason enough to reassess the broad interpretation of the Selden patent….”

Soon, Henry Ford drove up in one of his Model A Runabouts, this one converted to run on a non-compression Lenoir engine. It outdrove the Selden prototypes in a New York City competition.


Ford and his Runabout modified for Lenoir propulsion. I love the look on his face and rakish set of his hat.

Resolution arrived in the person of W. Benton Crisp, a talented attorney added to Ford’s legal staff (and yet another name to recur in our tale). On January 9, 1911, more than seven years after the original suit was filed, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed an earlier verdict and ruled in favor of Ford.


This wonderful illustration is by Jon Dahlstrom. It accompanied an article on the topic in Road & Track, December 2003.

The ruling upheld Selden’s patent—but only for vehicles powered by Brayton two-cycle engines, not the almost universally adopted Otto four-stroke variety. As Ford’s engines were all the latter, there was no infringement.

Selden’s patent expired in less than two years. It’s estimated his royalties amounted to several hundred thousand dollars, upwards of $8 million today. Selden returned to relative obscurity, dabbled with inventions and died in 1922 at the age of seventy-five.


Even after winning, Ford remained something of an outsider with his A.L.A.M. competitors.

Before long, the A.L.A.M. disappeared.

So, to summarize our tale thus far, we’ve had a messy patent fight, enhancements of the patent, ultimate resolution and several key players: Judge John R. Hazel, Henry Ford and W. Benton Crisp.

Meanwhile, up in the air, legalistically speaking…. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2012


  1. Bill Urban
    December 15, 2012

    Electric Trucks Delivered Silently And Well Long Ago

    I enjoyed the article describing the efforts to create a battery-powered city delivery van (“FedEx Considers Electric Trucks,” Corporate News, Aug. 12, 2010). Your discussion of the trucks brought back happy memories of my childhood in New York City in the late 1940s and ’50s when we would look forward to the passing of the all-electric United Parcel Service trucks that plied the streets. We were fascinated by their smooth, silent and powerful acceleration. Occasionally, the driver would allow us to step into the cab and ride along to the next stop, usually just up the street.
    Why is there never any mention of the long ago widespread use of electric delivery vans? Why was that technology just allowed to die, and why are we just now “discovering” that all-electric city vans are a great innovation?

    Dave Coriaty
    WSJ letter to the Editor Aug. 25, 2010

  2. no
    November 3, 2013

    it is intersting to note that how and why the government granted seldon a patenet with out a working model.?? heck john browning had to have several workinhg models of his 1911 45 pistol before a patent was granted
    bo ramsour denver

  3. Michael Izak
    March 3, 2015

    Why is there not a court citation to the case so one could look it up and read the text of the opinions? I will appreciate it if somebody could provide the court case citation information for the lower case district court decision and the appeailate court decision.

  4. Daniel R Seavoy
    August 31, 2017

    George Selden is my great great uncle. My grandfather is James Selden and father is Dan Selden.

  5. Jon P Bird
    September 19, 2017

    When I was attending high school outside of Syracuse, NY, my friend Joe and I entered this old abandoned house looking for treasures. I found one indeed and recently came across it again. I’m referring to a booklet, THE SELDEN CAR, published in 1911, featuring 5 different models (40-T, 40-R, r0-S, 44 and 46), all powered by a 4-cylinder, 48 BHP engine. Very special indeed.

  6. Vincent Edward O'Brien
    November 17, 2019

    The Ford v. ALAM (Selden) litigation was the subject of a very well-documented, well-written dissertation, “Monopoly on Wheels” by William Greenleaf available at

    • nikonosman
      February 11, 2020

      I have a publication from the Selden folks, “The SELDEN Car”, dated 1911, a catalog or sales magazine of the 5 models they allegedly built (5-passenger Touring Model 40-T for $2250; 7-passenger Touring Model 40-S for $2600; 4-paqssenger Torpedo Model 44 for $2500; 6-passenger Torpedo Model 46 for $2600; and the 2 or 3-passenger Roadster Model 40-R for $2500), all priced net, FOB Rochester, NY!
      Here’s a great Quote from this booklet: “The Selden Car throughout is the result of years of effort to produce the best possible car, one worth of the name of the inventor of the gasoline automobile, George B. Selden.” Wow!

  7. Vincent Edward O'Brien
    November 17, 2019

    An excellent, in-depth description of the eight-year litigation is “Monoploy on Wheels” by William Greenleaf. It can be purchased at Amazon:

  8. nikonosman
    February 11, 2020

    I can’t resist throwing in this great quote from my 1911 “The Selden Car” catalog:

    “The Selden Car throughout is the result of years of effort to produce the best possible car, one worthy of the name of the inventor of the gasoline automobile, George B. Selden.”

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