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George Selden, standing, and his sons

When I was in second grade at School #7, we learned all about local historical figures. George Eastman, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Jacob Bausch, Henry Lomb, Joseph C. Wilson, Nathaniel Rochester and George B. Selden.

Selden who?

We were taught Selden invented the automobile. If only his patent had been enforced, Rochester could have gotten as big as Detroit.

That’s the second-grade version. The whole story is a lot more complicated. It bears some striking similarities to the modern-day tale of Kodak. George Eastman even makes an appearance.

George B. Selden was born in 1846 in Clarkson, N.Y. He grew to despise horses during his service in the Civil War. He later became a patent lawyer and inventor.

Selden filed a patent on a combustion-powered automobile in 1879. George Eastman served as a witness to the patent. Selden, an avid photographer, had been a mentor to Eastman.

Selden’s patent was good for 17 years, but he was in no rush to receive it. He kept delaying its issue by filing legal motions. During those years he never actually opened a plant and made cars, but collected royalties from a group of manufacturers. Some say his strategy was to let others improve on his invention. Selden claimed he lacked capital to do anything.

One guy wouldn’t pay up – Henry Ford. “Selden can take his patent and go to Hell with it,” Ford executive James Couzens reportedly said.

Selden sued Ford. The case was heard in the Southern District of New York. The trial produced thousands and thousands of pages of documents. Ford argued Selden’s engine was totally different – and far inferior. In 1909  judge declared Selden the inventor of gasoline automobile.

Ford appealed. This time, the judge upheld Selden’s patent – but only for his specific engine. Ford had won.

Despite the court case that made headlines around the world, Selden and Ford didn’t become enemies. Selden said he admired Ford and Ford called Selden a “decent old fellow.”

Selden didn’t make out too badly. It’s estimated his patent earned him $200,000, a nice sum back then.

We can take pride in knowing Selden was declared the inventor of gasoline-powered automobile. But he never came up with a dynamite, mass-produced vehicle. That was Ford’s accomplishment.

Selden’s sons did start a factory that assembled vehicles in 1905. It was located on Probert St. The Selden Motor Vehicle eventually made only trucks. It was bought out in 1930 by a Pennsylvania company that moved the operation out of town.

The Selden name in the automobile industry was finished.

Source: Rochester and the Automobile Industry by Joseph W. Barnes

2 Responses to The Original Patent Fight

  1. A crazy thing is that Rochester was one of 2 locations George Eastman was using to set up Kodak:
    “Kodak’s origins rest with Eastman Dry Plate Company,[3] and the General Aristo Company, founded by inventor George Eastman in Rochester and Jamestown, New York. The General Aristo Company was formed in 1899 in Jamestown New York, with George Eastman as treasurer, and this company purchased the stock of American Aristotype Company. Eventually, the business in Jamestown was moved in its entirety to Rochester, and the plants in Jamestown were razed.”

    The story locals have told me (I moved from Rochester to Jamestown in 1999) is that Eastman didn’t get the best reception from the Swedes who ran things around here, so he packed up and left.

  2. Cool story! I’ve heard variations on this from the various docents on tours of Mt. Hope Cemetery — where Selden is buried under a tombstone identifying him as the inventor of the gasoline automobile.

    The picture of the Selden sons is striking in the resemblance to a Selden descendent I met in 2005 at the opening of Van White’s African-American heritage center — located in the former Selden mansion in the Grove Place neighborhood.

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