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George B. Selden should not be confused with George Seldes, an American investigative journalist and media critic

George B Selden driving automobile in 1905
George B. Selden (September 14, 1846 in Clarkson, New Yorkmarker – January 17, 1922 in Rochester, New Yorkmarker) was a patent lawyer and inventor who was granted a U.S. patent for an automobile in 1895.

The idea of a horseless carriage was in the air during George's youth, but its practicality was uncertain. In 1859, his father, Judge Henry R. Selden, a prominent Republican attorney most noted for defending Susan B. Anthony, moved to Rochester, New Yorkmarker, where George briefly attended the University of Rochestermarker before dropping out to enlist in the Sixth U.S. Cavalry, Union Army. This was not to the liking of his father who after pulling some strings and having some earnest discussions with his son managed to have him released from duty and enrolled in Yalemarker. George did not do well at Yale in his law studies, preferring the technical studies offered by the Sheffield Scientific School, but did manage to finish his course of study and pass the New York bar 1871 and joined his father's practice.

He married shortly thereafter to Clara Drake Woodruff, by whom he had 4 children. He continued his hobby of inventing in a workshop in his father's basement, inventing a typewriter and a hoop making machine.

For a time, Selden represented photography pioneer George Eastman in patent matters.

The Selden Patent

See also Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers
Inspired by the mammoth internal combustion engine invented by George Brayton displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, Selden began working on a smaller lighter version, succeeding by 1878, some eight years before the public introduction of the Benz Patent Motorwagen in Europe, in producing a one-cylinder, 400-pound version which featured an enclosed crankshaft with the help of Rochester machinist, Frank H. Clement and his assistant William Gomm. He filed for a patent on May 8, 1879. His application included not only the engine but its use in a 4 wheeled car. He then filed a series of amendments to his application which stretched out the legal process resulting in a delay of 16 years before the patent pdf was granted on November 5, 1895.

The Selden Road-Engine

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 $15 per car with a minimum annual payment of $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, the ALAM. He 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, Michiganmarker 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. 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 $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 1 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 at 75 on January 17, 1922. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemeterymarker in Rochester. It is estimated he received several hundred thousand dollars in royalties.


  1. Flink, p. 51 Probably the most absurd action in the history of patent law was the granting of United States patent number 549,160 on November 5, 1895, to George B. Selden. a Rockester, New York, patent lawyer and inventor, for an "improved road engine" powered by "a liquid-hydrocarbon engine of the compression type."
  2. Flink, p. 51 His own patent application was filed in 1879. He then used evasive legal tactics to delay the patent's acceptance until conditions seemed favorable for commercial exploitation.


  • Based on pages 184-199 of The Mayflower Murderer & Other Forgotten Firsts in American History, Peter F. Stevens, William Morrow, hardcover, 272 pages, ISBN 0-688-11818-6. Published simultaneously on Wikinfo.

  • Flink, James J., The Automobile Age, MIT Press (1990), ISBN 0-2625605-5-0

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