Bob Kearns gets his reward.
In 1993, I was enjoying my usual night-owl routine of watching “Late Night with David Letterman” when the comedian surprised me by announcing a guest from the auto industry.
He introduced Bob Kearns as being the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper system, and mentioned that Kearns had just won a lawsuit against Chrysler to get compensation for his device. A car enthusiast himself, Letterman’s first question to the soft-spoken, white-haired guest was a jab at Chrysler’s poor reputation (at the time) for reliability: he asked if Kearns had also invented the company’s “intermittent engines.”
This three-minute segment was the first I had heard of Kearns’ struggle or given a moment’s thought to this piece of standard safety equipment.
Fifteen years later, I learned Kearns’ story was being made into a film called Flash of Genius. From the short trailer, I learned that Greg Kinnear had been picked to play Kearns, a fact that only boosted my enthusiasm to see the movie. (Kinnear played another Bob in 2002’s Auto Focus, a biopic about “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane. If you liked Hogan as much as I did, I recommend Auto Focus, but with one warning: Crane was no Boy Scout, so don’t watch it with the kiddies in the room.)
To prepare for the movie, I read John Seabrook’s Jan. 11, 1993, The New Yorker article on which the movie was based at www.booknoise.net, and, on October 3, my wife and I attended the first showing of Flash of Genius at one of our local megaplexes.
The movie did a good job of staying historically accurate without making the material dry and technical. There was enough car stuff to keep Cars & Parts readers (like me) interested, and enough human drama to tell a good story.
Kearns, who grew up surrounded by auto plants in Detroit, was an engineer, teacher, and freelance inventor who was driving his Ford Galaxie on a rainy day in November of 1962 when he realized that wiper motors needed a setting between “on” and “off” that could be controlled by the driver. Less than a year later, he was demonstrating a prototype to Ford’s wiper specialists who were amazed he had solved the system’s various problems with only four parts. Kearns filed for a patent in 1964 and received it in 1967.
According to the movie, Ford stole Kearns’ technology and, in 1969, introduced the intermittent windshield wiper as an option on its new cars. (The Mustang Facts Book from that year describes the $16.85 accessory this exciting way: “The length of the pause may be controlled by the driver from two seconds to 10 seconds, depending on the amount of precipitation, car speed, or traffic conditions.”) Other automakers – GM, Chrysler, Ferrari, Mercedes, and many more – followed Ford’s example, and, within a few years millions of cars were equipped with Kearns’ device.
Kearns suffered a nervous breakdown in 1976 after dismantling a Mercedes system and finding his design, filed his first lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. in 1978 for patent infringement, and spent the rest of his life seeking recognition for the invention. The fight led to a divorce in 1980, although some of his six children helped Kearns pursue his obsession. In 1990, the case finally went to trial, with Kearns representing himself. Kearns won and Ford offered to settle for $30 million but refused to admit it had stolen his invention – Kearns declined the settlement. A second trial brought a $5.2 million settlement, but Kearns again refused, eventually taking Ford’s offer for $10.2 million.
From there, with a nice war chest to support his legal expenses, Kearns pursued Chrysler (winning $18.7 million), with plans to go after Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz, and several other European and Japanese manufacturers.
Kearns died Feb. 9, 2005, of brain cancer complicated by Alzheimer’s disease, but his story lives in Flash of Genius. Look for it in a few months on DVD.