The Marshall Steam Museum tells the story of the American motor carriage from its birth at the start of the 20th century, through adolescence in the 19-teens, to adulthood of the early 1920s. The proxy to share this exciting story is the Stanley Motor Carriage Company (1902-1924). Their Stanley steam cars were the top selling brand at the start of the 1900s and contributed much to this unique era of American motoring history.
With any technological advance, multiple individuals form companies to offer their version and vision of the budding technology. In the mid-1870s various individuals manufactured telephones while others established networks for the operation of those telephones In the mid-1880s multiple makers of incandescent lamps became established while others established electric generation plants and electrical distribution networks. Similar occurred with the motor carriage the start of the 20th century as three technologies, steam, electric, and internal combustion, all fought to become the preferred choice to power the personal vehicle.
Electric vehicles remained the most registered motor vehicle technology until 1919 when internal combustion powered vehicles out-registered electric vehicles in the U.S. The Stanley twins’ first steam car design was sold under the Locomobile Company of America name in 1899. Additionally the Mobile Company of America sold the Stanley design beginning in 1899. By the end of 1903, Locomobile embraced the manufacture of internal combustion powered luxury automobiles and sold their steam car business to Stanley Motor Carriage Company.
At the dawn of the automotive age, what might be a reasonable estimate of how many manufacturers started to make an internal combustion motorcarriage? For bonus points, how many of those manufacturers lasted from say 1904 through 1910? Are any of those manufacturer’s names still used on cars produced today?
In 1895 George B. Selden was granted patent 549,160 for a “Road Engine.” As a patent lawyer Selden wrote the patent with many all-encompassing phrases that loosely described a personal “road engine powered by a liquid hydrocarbon engine of the compression type” Statements such as “a convenient number of cylinders”, “connected to either steering or trailing axles”, and listing numerous advantages of his design over steam-powered carriages further allowed the patent to describe an endless array of automobile technologies based on the internal combustion engine. Selden sold the patent to the Electric Vehicle Company who quickly enforced the patent by suing anyone manufacturing for sale or owning an internal combustion motor powered vehicle where royalty payments had not been paid for use of Selden’s patent.
The Manufacturer’s Mutual Association was formed to challenge Selden’s patent but soon became aligned with Electric Vehicle Company. Renaming the association as the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, the organization published an annual listing of fully licensed manufacturers who paid royalties to Electric Vehicle Company for each internal combustion vehicle they manufactured. The Association’s directory, published between 1904 and 1922, listed the manufacturers and models those manufacturers produced as a means for buyers to purchase vehicles without having to worry if the vehicle infringed the Selden patent.
Henry Ford refused to pay the royalty and waged an 8-year fight against the patent in court eventually winning in January 1911 on appeal. Interestingly Selden’s patent expired in 1912 so the win was very short lived. For the years the patent was in force, the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers catalog of licensed manufacturers contained the following as part of the Preface:
Each manufacturer or importer conducts his business entirely independent of the other, and, of course, in open competition, but the recognition by the companies represented herein of the basic patent No. 549,160, granted to George B. Selden, November 5th, 1895, on gasoline automobiles (which controls broadly all gasoline automobiles which are accepted as commercially practicable), is a guarantee that a purchase through the several companies herein represented, or through their agents, secures to the purchaser freedom from the annoyance and expense of litigation because of infringement of this patent.
In the Association’s Handbook of the Automobile issued between 1904 and 1911, no less than 116 organizations attempted to manufacture automobiles for a time period of a year or longer, as documented by their paying royalties to the Association. Only 19 companies (highlighted in dark green) lasted the entire 8 years including Locomobile Company of America (blue highlight). Only Buick and Cadillac lasted the 8-year period of interest and are found on automobiles manufactured today. Of course, Ford remains today as well, but Ford was never a member of the Association and never paid royalties as evidenced by the legal battle.