During Steamin’ Days and private tours, we often tell visitors that laid out before them is the evolution of the automobile from birth to maturity. The museum’s story revolves around the Stanley Motor Carriage Company, but a similar story might be told for any number of other manufacturers of the era. Once pointed out, visitors begin noticing lighting evolving from removeable kerosene lamps to carbide to acetylene gas lamps and finally to electric. They notice the evolution from wood bodies to aluminum and steel, from tillers to right-hand steering to left-hand steering. But there are many more stories hidden away within the Marshall Steam Museum yet to be told.
For example, every vehicle in the museum (with the exception of the Penny Farthing currently on display) has a minimum of four wheels. Perhaps in the future, a temporary display might detail the evolution of the automotive wheel and tire. In 1916 an estimated 6,470,832 wheels, tubes, flaps, and tires had to be produced for the 1,617,708 steam, electric, and internal combustion-powered horseless carriages manufactured that year. Estimates also indicate that due to the lack of robust rubber tire construction, not to mention the deplorable condition of American roads, the 3-million-plus passenger vehicles in use in 1916 consumed an average of eight tires per year! The result was American industry produced upwards of 20 million tires annually in 1916 to keep pace!
While the 1914 Ford Model T included in the collection highlights one of the three primary technologies vying for supremacy during automotive adolescence, future investigations might highlight the impressive impact Henry Ford and the Model T provided in multitudes of ways. People think of the Model T as the first mass-produced, mechanically complex commodity manufactured but rarely recognize Ford’s insight in taking the fundamental operation of a meat packing plant and reversing it (put something together instead of cutting it apart as a series of operations or steps) for mass production of almost any manufactured commodity.
Now step back a bit further to realize that every Model T from 1908 until 1927 required four wheels with tires (and perhaps a spare). Ford’s suppliers, such as Firestone, had to maintain large-scale, efficient, high-volume production operations not only to supply Ford but Stanley, Rauch & Lang and their competitors as well! The adolescent period of the automobile not only introduced mass production but the need for standardization of products, which provides yet another opportunity for interpretation and display.
The first vehicle to move under its own power (steam) on American streets, and the world’s first amphibious vehicle, was constructed by Oliver Evans of Delaware and demonstrated on Market Street and the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia in 1805. The first sale of an American-built self-powered vehicle was a steam car constructed by S. H. Roper of Massachusetts, which sold in 1889. Soon to follow was an electric car sold to J. B. McDonald, which William Morrison of Des Moines, IA, constructed in early 1892 and exhibited on the streets of Chicago in September of that year. The Stanley twins constructed their first car in 1897, a year before the first internal combustion car was sold by Alexander Winton to Robert Allison of Port Carbon, PA, in 1898.
The first public car show was held in Madison Square Garden, New York City, in 1890, where 34 makes were exhibited. Only 3,700 cars of all makers were produced in 1899, rising to 11,000 vehicles by 1903, with Locomobile/Stanley the top seller for 1900 through 1903. A total of 44,000 vehicles valued at $93.4 million were produced in 1907, followed by 85,000 cars of all models in 1908. Production climbed steadily upward, reaching 485,000 cars in 1913 and just prior to World War I. Automotive historians suggest this output was muted from what it might have been. The Marshall Steam Museum’s Model T represents that story as well.
What factor, event, or otherwise was responsible for muting American horseless carriage production, especially for internal combustion engine powered vehicles, right after Alexander Winton sold his first Winton in 1898?
Our Founding Fathers realized that if this country was to prosper, a means to protect intellectual property was needed. Thus in 1790 President George Washington signed the bill creating America’s patent system. A patent doesn’t grant the right to make, sell or use a product incorporating a patented idea, but rather permits the person(s) having the idea to determine how they wish their idea to be used (license, sell, assign/transfer, gift, etc.) while excluding others from making, selling, importing or otherwise creating an equivalent for some period of years. It was the U.S. patent system that inhibited the rapid expansion of early automotive ideas and designs.
In 1879 George B. Selden of Rochester, NY, applied for a patent for a gasoline-powered engine that might be used in a 4-wheeled vehicle. This was long before anyone thought it worthy putting an internal combustion engine in a carriage, thus rendering it “horseless.” Selden had conceived the idea and constructed a prototype so that he could file a patent application (with George Eastman, no less, as witness!). For the next 16 years, Selden kept updating his application and using similar legal patent regulations to keep the patent application alive until 1895, when he allowed the patent to be issued (Patent 549,160, November 5, 1895). Today patents expire in 20 years; however, in Selden’s time, it was 17 years. Selden effectively stopped the construction and sale of most gasoline-engine powered horseless carriages until 1912 unless a royalty was paid.
The Stanley twins ran afoul of patent law as well, but not Selden’s. They had patented (Patent 663,836) their rear axle differential and later granted sole use to the Locomobile Company when they sold their early steam carriage business. When the twins re-entered the horseless carriage business and introduced a re-designed Stanley Steamer in 1902, it retained a chain drive similar to what they had sold Locomobile but with a re-designed differential. A court case soon developed over the differential’s design, and instead of suffering the expense of a court battle and possibly losing, the twins moved their steam engine to a rear-axle mounting and direct gear drive between the crankshaft and differential, thus avoiding the claimed patent infringement of the twins’ licensed patent to Locomobile!
Selden sold all rights for his patent in 1900 to the Electric Vehicle Company, which enforced it rigorously. Alexander Winton’s Winton Motor Carriage Company was one of the first targeted. As a result, the Manufacturer’s Mutual Association, which later became the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, was formed to fight both Selden and Electric Vehicle Company. Having lost the patent challenge, manufacturers were forced to pay a royalty fee for every gasoline-powered vehicle manufactured. Thus, at the start of the automobile age, every gasoline-powered horseless carriage sold included a licensing fee that raised the catalog price and effectively limited the desire of gasoline-powered carriage manufacturers to risk expanding with new models and features.
The Selden patent became a thorn in Henry Ford’s plans when his Ford Motor Company was denied a license to use the patent in 1903 after forming his company. That didn’t stop Ford, and he continued with plans for the production of his Model T. Ford’s Model T debuted on October 1, 1908, and within weeks the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers filed a patent infringement case against Ford Motor Company. Nearly a year later, Ford lost his case, similar to others who challenged the Selden patent.
Unfazed, Ford appealed, which none of the others had previously attempted. For the appeal, Ford dove into the intricacies of Selden-patented gasoline-powered engine against the Ford-designed engine. Selden’s engine was based on the Brayton thermodynamic cycle (constant-pressure engine similar to a jet engine but using pistons) and not the Otto thermodynamic cycle (relies on varying pressures to operate) Ford had embraced. Ford easily won the appeal in January 1911, and with only a year left in the patent’s life, further contesting by the Association was not pursued. In 1912 the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers quietly changed their name to the Automobile Board of Trade and by 1914 were known as the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce with the purpose of promoting all horseless carriages. A look at automobile production records reveals that for 1912 and subsequent years, automotive production roughly doubled annually until World War 1.
Next time you visit the Marshall Steam Museum, take a moment to look beyond all that is displayed and let your mind wonder to how it all happened. The Marshall Steam Museum is more than a collection of steam cars and a few era artifacts. Hidden about are stories related to automobiles, the industrial revolution, banking, dealerships and selling automobiles, railroads, steam power, electrical power, galvanized sheet, clay mining, working conditions, and so much more.