Today, patents and public relations. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
George B. Selden filed the
first patent for a combustion-powered automobile in
1879. Selden was a Civil-War veteran. After the War
he studied engineering at Yale. The great American
scientist J. Willard Gibbs
was one of his teachers there. Selden had to drop
out when his father died, so he studied law and
passed the bar exam in 1871. He knew his patent
could protect him for only seventeen years, once it
was issued. It was unlikely that he could produce
cars and create a market for them that soon.
Selden's abilities as both an inventor and a lawyer
far outstripped his talent as a production
engineer. He kept his patent alive by filing
amendments to delay its issue. Meanwhile, the
Duryea brothers, Olds (of the Oldsmobile), and many
others created workable cars. Duryea cars were on
the market while Selden was still struggling to
Selden's patent surfaced in 1903 as a roadblock to
the successful makers. They formed the Association
of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, and they came
to terms with Selden by paying a modest royalty on
each car they sold. Well, all but one did.
At a meeting of the Association, Henry Couzens,
business manager for a minor builder named Henry Ford, shouted, "Tell
Selden to take his patent and go to Hell with it!"
"Couzens has answered you," said Ford, and they
went to the courts. Ford painted the Selden people
as a great corporate trust, trying to crush him.
He finally won his case in 1911. By then, the
thirty-year-old Selden patent looked pretty
antediluvian. By then, Ford had made twenty times
as much money as the so-called Selden Monopoly. And
that was still before he'd invented the assembly
Olds was first to mass-produce cars using
interchangeable parts. Four years after his patent
victory, Ford adapted Olds' methods in an assembly
line. Then he started to make money on a scale no
one had yet imagined. Selden was forgotten, and
Ford became an American legend. In 1934, Ford
received a letter that claimed to be from the
notorious Clyde Barrow, of Bonnie and Clyde fame.
While I still have got breath in my lungs I will
tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove
Fords exclusively when I could get away with one.
For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the
Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my
business hasent been strickly legal it don't hurt
enything to tell you what a fine car you got in the
Clyde Champion Barrow.
Whether the letter was real or fake, it caught the
temper of the times. Clyde Barrow and Henry Ford
had two things in common: They were both
inordinately interested in making money, and they
both cultivated their images as American folk
And Selden? Well, perhaps he was a burr under the
saddle that helped make it all happen.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Greenleaf, W., Monopoly on wheels. Detroit:
The Wayne State University Press, 1961.
Phillips, J. N., Running with Bonnie and Clyde:
The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults. Norman, OK:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1996, pg. 194.
Milner, E. R., The Lives and Times of Bonnie
and Clyde. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois
University Press, 1996, pg. 101.
This is a greatly rewritten version of Episode 207.
From The Gasoline
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.