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World’s largest automotive patent collection joins Gilmore Car Museum’s collection

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Design patent 190225, granted May 1961.

A collection of more than 396,000 patents, dating back to the 1790s and assembled over the better part of a century, has made its way to the Gilmore Car Museum, where, for the first time in its history, it will become available to the general public.

“I was thrilled they even thought of us,” Jay Follis, the museum’s director of marketing, said of Kettering University’s donation of the collection. “They could’ve easily disposed of the patents instead.”

Though the collection came from Kettering – the former General Motors Institute renamed for GM head of research Charles Kettering – the university inherited it in 1999 from the Society of Automotive Engineers, which in turn obtained it from the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, which started the collection in 1911.

Given the date and the presence in the collection of any patent even remotely relating to the automobile back to Oliver Evans’s patent for a flour mill in 1790, it’s likely the AAMA began the collection as a direct response to and defense against George Selden’s 1895 patent (549160). In that patent, Selden not only laid claim to having invented the compact internal combustion engine, but also to the automobile itself. Though he constructed few (if any) cars himself, he leveraged that single patent into a licensing dynasty, earning himself hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties, until Henry Ford and four other carmakers who refused to pay Selden’s royalties challenged him in court and, in January 1911, prevailed.

A sampling of some of the patents cataloged in the collection.

From then on, and through the SAE’s stewardship, the collection cataloged just about every automotive innovation, from engine technology to accessories to designs. While Kettering University didn’t add any patents to the collection after 1999, it did organize the patents by topic and entered every patent in the collection into a searchable database for its students to use.

However, according to Follis, Kettering officials in recent years have encouraged students “not to lean on what came prior, and to instead focus on new innovations.” Besides, Google has for several years now made every U.S. patent searchable through Google Patents. So, seeing declining use of the collection by students, Kettering donated it to the Gilmore, where it is now housed in the museum’s climate-controlled archives, accessible to any visitor to the museum’s research library.

Photo via Gilmore Car Museum.

Follis conceded that, indeed, every patent in the collection is now available online. However, the presence of decades’ worth of notations from AAMA and SAE members adds an element to the patents not available online. “And they’re just kinda fun,” he said. “They’re neat to look at and we can display these in exhibits. At least we’ve been able to preserve the collection.”

The museum’s research library and archives are open during regular museum hours. For more information about the Gilmore Car Museum, visit