Today, let's talk about 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, where the great
American Scientist J. Willard Gibbs was one of his
teachers. 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 that
delayed 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 produce one. But in
1903 Selden's patent surfaced as a roadblock to the
successful makers. One after another, they came to
terms with it and paid Selden a modest royalty when
they sold their cars.
Henry Couzens, business manager for one of the lesser
makers, Henry Ford,
angrily told the Association of Licensed Automobile
manufacturers, "Tell Selden to take his patent and go
to Hell with it." Ford added, "Couzen's has answered
you", and they took to the courts.
There they painted the Selden patent holders as a
great corporate trust that was 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 the first to mass-produce cars using
interchangeable parts. Four years after his patent
victory, Ford adapted Olds's methods in an assembly
line, and he started to make money on a scale no one
had ever imagined. Selden was forgotten, and Ford
turned into an American legend.
In 1934 the notorious Clyde Barrow, of Bonnie and
Clyde fame, took time out from robbing banks to
identify his name with Ford's. He wrote Ford the
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 V-8.
Clyde Champion Barrow.
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 heroes. But for all that, Ford really
did remake America while he was at it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This episode has been greatly rewritten as Episode 1713.
From The Gasoline Automobile,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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