The most comprehensive assemblage of automotive related patents in existence, both foreign and domestic and dating back to 1790, has been transferred to the Gilmore Car Museum’s Research Library near Kalamazoo, MI.
The unique collection consists of almost 1,400 archival boxes containing more than 396,000 patents, representing some of the automobile industry’s most important historical documents.
Kettering University of Flint, MI is the former General Motors Institute and held the extensive Patent Collection since 2001. The University was established in 1919 as The School of Automobile Trades offering co-op educational programs to train engineering and management personnel in the auto industry. Through the following decades and name changes Kettering has become a global leader in engineering, mathematics, business and science education, and was recently ranked nationally in the top ten for its Mechanical Engineering program.
“The University wished to donate the Patent Collection to an institution where its value would be best appreciated and utilized,” explained Barbara Fronczak, Consultant for Archives of Kettering University. “This value lies in its unprecedented assistance to historians, researchers, automotive restorers and collectors as well as authors and other interested parties.”
In just the past five years the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, MI has experienced unmatched growth within the museum field. In 2016, it celebrated its 50th anniversary recognized as the largest automotive museum in North America. The expansive Automotive Patent Collection is now secured in the Museum’s state-of-the-art climate-controlled archive facility.
The Patent Collection contains paper duplicates of automotive-related patents, both American and foreign, from 1790 to 1999 as well as a comprehensive searchable database. The gathering of these patents was originally started in 1911 by the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA), though the collection was later given to the Society of Automobile Engineers (SAE), being the older, more expansive, and larger organization.
In 1905 several automobile manufacturers, parts suppliers and inventors created the SAE to help promote business and raise public awareness of this new form of transportation. The trade group also helped its members with patent protection, common technical issues, and the development of engineering standards.
Andrew Riker, an early pioneer of electric vehicles, served as president while Henry Ford, having started Ford Motor Company just two years prior, served as the society’s first vice-president. The initial membership of the SAE tallied 30 engineers, including such noteworthy innovators as Thomas Edison, Glenn Curtiss and Orville Wright. Today, the SAE has more than 128,000 members, with over a quarter from outside of North America.
“This Automotive Patent Collection is an amazing treasure trove of incredible history,” stated Richard Bowman, Director of the Gilmore Car Museum Research Library and Archives. “Patents represent the progression of an idea to finished product and, ultimately, to an industry–the entire evolution of the automotive industry is here.”
The earliest patent represented in the collection is from 1790 and is the third patent issued by the then new Federal Patent Office. It was issued to Oliver Evans of Philadelphia, PA for an automated flour mill and was signed by founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Considered by many as early America’s most prolific and influential inventors, Oliver Evans helped shape the young nation’s manufacturing. During the American Revolution and the period immediately following, he developed an automated production line used for milling flour and created the first high-pressure steam engine.
In 1804, when ridiculed for his experimental amphibious vehicle because it moved too slowly on land, Evans proposed a $3000 wager that he could produce a steam carriage that could outpace the swiftest horse his opponents could find. While his critics were ultimately silenced, Evans eventually decided the idea of a steam carriage would not yet be profitable. He continued with innovations in automation, materials handling and steam power.
This historic collection holds numerous patents for upgrades and advancements for various forms of autos, including vehicles such as a 1906 model by Henry Ford and another from 1947 with a turning “cyclops” headlight held by Preston Tucker. Some patents in the collection seem decades ahead of their time, like the 1910 Rhodes Pathfinder that provided audible turn-by-turn directions akin to today’s GPS. Others seem more whimsical or just plain odd by today’s standards—such as the 1921 under-the-seat “cooking stove” that was heated by engine exhaust or an under-the-dash record player (albeit skip prone) offered as an option by Chrysler in 1956 and ’57.
One of the most revolutionary automotive patents is perhaps the electric starter in 1911 that ended the requirement of hand-cranking to start an auto. Issued to inventor Charles Kettering, founder of the Research and Development Team at General Motors—and for whom the University is named—the electric starter changed the auto industry when it became standard on Cadillacs in 1912. Today the Gilmore Car Museum owns and displays one such model: the 1,380-mile unrestored 1912 Cadillac originally owned by the Fisher family, suppliers of automobile bodies to Cadillac, and later the exclusive body supplier for General Motors.
“We are highly honored that the Gilmore Car Museum has been selected as the repository for this incredible Automotive Patent Collection–the only comprehensive collection of exclusively automotive patents in existence,” Chris Shires, Executive Director of the Museum stated in a recent press release.
The non-lending Research Library and Archives of the Gilmore Car Museum is open to the public during normal weekday Museum hours. In addition to the Patent Collection, it holds nearly 250,000 automotive ads, artwork, brochures, repair manuals, books and early trade publications, as well as special collections dedicated to Cadillac, Checker, Franklin, Pontiac and Tucker.
The Museum is located midway between Chicago and Detroit in the heart of West Michigan, just a short drive from Kalamazoo. To learn more about the Museum visit GilmoreCarMuseum.org or call the Museum at 269-671-5089.