Nice Work If You Can Keep It

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The usual image of invention is of the solitary genius struggling in his garret with an idea only he has faith in. One day he shouts, “Eureka!” and the world changes. Sometimes this is actually the case. Thomas Edison, after all, was entitled to shout, “Eureka!” more than a thousand times in his life, although I doubt that he did.

In the modern era, however, most great inventions are under development for long periods of time, sometimes generations, before someone solves the last piece of the puzzle and becomes “the inventor.” Dozens of individuals were struggling with heavier-than-air flight at the turn of the century, but it was the Wright brothers (so close to each other as nearly to be a solitary genius) who solved the last major problem, turning. Their insight was to realize that airplanes turn in three dimensions, not two, as does land- or seabound transportation, and they devised a means to allow the aircraft to do so while maintaining stability: wing warping. That was enough, however. They did indeed invent the airplane, for theirs was the first one that worked.

But many of the most important inventions had no inventors at all. It was known as early as the sixteenth century, for instance, that when a wagon is placed on rails, a draft animal (or, often, a human being) can haul much heavier loads. It is not known who first had the idea of using a steam engine instead of a horse or mule to pull the wagon, and it was only in 1797 that Richard Trevithick developed a steam engine powerful enough to do so. Trevithick’s locomotive, however, required a toothed rail to operate, such as that which cog railways still use on steep mountain slopes. Then William Hedley in 1813 built Puffing Billy, which relied on friction for traction. Finally, in 1829, George Stephenson built the Rocket—much more powerful than previous locomotives, thanks to its tubular boiler—and solved a myriad of practical engineering problems in designing the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the first commercially successful railroad.

In our own time the computer had a thousand fathers, from Charles Babbage in the early nineteenth century to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in the 1970s and 1980s, before it was ready to sit on half the desks in the country.

The automobile, too, had many contributors, from Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, who first conceived the idea of a self-propelled vehicle, to Nikolaus Otto, who built the first practical four-cycle engine in 1862, Wilhelm Maybach, who invented the carburetor in 1893, and Henry Ford, who introduced the assembly line in 1914.

But unlike the other inventions, which evolved rather than sprang into being from the mind of a single genius, the automobile was patented in its entirety, and by someone who never even built one, George B. Selden. Had he been able to make the patent stick, he would have been F ORBES Four Hundred rich. As it was, given his actual, minuscule contribution to automobile development, he didn’t do badly at all. This was not American patent law’s finest hour.

Selden, who lived in Rochester, New York, was an inventor by avocation. He made his living as a patent attorney and was thoroughly versed in the intricacies of that law, one of the earliest legal specialties.

In 1872 George B. Brayton of Boston had patented a two-cycle internal-combustion engine that was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where Selden saw it and was inspired. He built his own three-cylinder model, and he designed, but never built, a vehicle around this engine. In 1879 he applied for a patent for an “improved road engine” that was powered by “a liquid-hydrocarbon engine of the compression type.”

Had that been all, Selden probably would have received his patent in 1881, and thus it would have expired in 1898. But he realized that the automobile was nowhere near a practical (and therefore potentially moneymaking) invention in 1879. Knowing the intricacies of patent law and the foibles of the Patent Office, Selden filed a series of amended applications that had the effect of delaying the issuance of the patent while maintaining his priority. Finally, in 1895, fully sixteen years after his first application and around the time the Patent Office was tightening up its much-abused procedures regarding amended applications, Selden received U.S. Patent No. 549,160. As far as the U.S. government was concerned, George B. Selden had invented the automobile. And receiving the patent at this point was fine by Selden, for the carburetor, developed two years earlier, had finally made the automobile practical. There was now money to be made in the aborning car industry.

In 1899 Selden cashed in. He sold his patent to a syndicate of Wall Street investors headed by William C. Whitney and Thomas Fortune Ryan for ten thousand dollars (perhaps fifteen times that in today’s money) and 20 percent of any royalties they collected from car manufacturers. The following year the syndicate, operating as the Electric Vehicle Company, sued the Winton Motor Carriage Company, then the leading manufacturer of automobiles in the United States. Alexander Winton fought the suit at first but then came to realize that the courts were likely to uphold the patent and settled. (He was right. The court held the patent valid on March 20, 1903.)