GREAT BARRINGTON — William C. Whitney (1841-1904) worked for New York City's legal department to clean up the Tweed Ring reform movement and he served as Secretary of the Navy in Grover Cleveland's first administration. That made him a minor celebrity when he and his wife, Flora Payne Whitney (1841-1893), rented the Vent Fort mansion in Lenox for five seasons in the 1880s. He loved the Berkshires and soon amassed some 6,000 acres on October Mountain for a game preserve and retreat.

Whitney was a venture capitalist on the prowl for opportunities. He amalgamated several street railways and acquired stock in Electric Vehicle Co. and its parent, Electric Storage Battery Co.

EVC contracted with Col. Albert A. Pope's electric auto works in Hartford to build 1,600 electric taxicabs to serve in New York and other cities. Their joint venture was Columbia & Electric Vehicle Co.

The taxi system had aches and pains, particularly in recharging cabs efficiently. Its cabs quickly became outdated; drivers went on strike; franchise taxes rose; and there was a national economic panic in 1907. But to make the deal, Whitney had insisted Pope acquire rights to a particular U.S. patent, the Selden patent.

The name George B. Selden (1846-1922) doesn't resonate today. But he was an enormous thorn in the side of a burgeoning automobile industry. His brief local connection is due to a stay in Lenox in June 1906.

A burst of inspiration

Seldon was an inventor and patent attorney. He saw the Brayton internal combustion engine at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, had a burst of inspiration and came up with his own plan for an engine powering a four-wheel conveyance.

Selden filed for a patent in 1879. He repeatedly filed amendments incorporating some of the changes going on in the industrial world, purposely drawing out the process for 16 years so as to strengthen his document. He waited until automobile manufacturing matured and there was potential to earn money. He finally received patent No. 549,160 in 1895. It would be in force until 1912. It would have died a deserved death had judges closely examined its lack of merit. Selden never made a model, much less a working model, until years later, in the heat of litigation — and then it failed to impress anyone.

Pope and EVC nevertheless paid Seldon $30,000 plus royalties for exclusive rights.

Whitney methodically extorted royalties from all auto manufacturers that used gasoline engines to power wheeled conveyances. Non-licensed manufacturers found it difficult to sign up dealers.

Buffalo Judge John R. Hazel in November 1900 ruled "the gasoline-powered automobile had been invented by one and only one man, George Baldwin Selden of Rochester, New York," according to former Lenox resident Lawrence Goldstone in his book Drive! (2016). "As a result, each and every gasoline vehicle produced in the United States could be sold only with the permission of the inventor and must include tribute in the form of licensing fees, the amount to be determined by the patent's owners."

This granted the patent "pioneer status."

The manufacturer Winton ignored the patent. EVC sued and prevailed in 1903. Winton and some other manufacturers came to EVC to strike a deal: blanket permission to the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM), which would collect and share a 1.25 percent royalty on every sanctioned vehicle sold. The major automaker members (at first 11, eventually 80) used this permission as a tool to control who would be licensed, who could legally make cars and who couldn't. Dismissive of the patent, Henry Ford nevertheless applied for an ALAM license and was denied. A patent infringement suit was brought against Ford, Jeffery, Panhard et Levassor, Duryea, Stearns, Elmore and other makers without license.

Patent shakedown

Selden's patent, according to business historian Melvin G. Barger, "described an automobile, but later attempts to build a car to the patent's specifications ended in failure. Selden's was a patent for a car that wouldn't run more than a few thousand yards. Yet Selden and his later associates made the broad claim that the patent covered every gasoline-powered car built! This was an extraordinary claim, because none of the estimated 300 men who were trying to start car companies borrowed anything from Selden's patent, and the engine shown on his patent drawing was never successfully used on any commercial road vehicle. The only thing the Selden patent had in common with other cars of the day was its specification of gasoline as the fuel."

Ford took the lead and lost in the first court round. The argument that automobiles then on the road owed more to the 1861 Nikolaus Otto design than the George Brayton design echoed by Selden didn't hold with the court. But Ford — his soaring production daily increasing the huge royalties and interest he would have to pay ALAM should he fail — was victorious on appeal in 1911. Ford didn't have to pay royalties, past or future.

The patent went from pioneer status to "social invention." Worthless.

Whitney by then was seven years dead. His son and corporate successor Harry Payne Whitney had ceded involvement when EVC ended car production in 1907. The patent war carried on by Pope and Selden was soon forgotten.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts acquired Whitney's 11,000-acre October Mountain domain in 1915 and turned it into a state forest. It was the senior Whitney's lasting investment.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.