Robert (‘Bob’) William Kearns was an American inventor and engineer who made significant contributions to the automotive industry. He is best known for inventing the intermittent windshield wiper mechanism, which has become a standard feature in most cars worldwide.
After inventing and patenting this system, he tried to interest the ‘Big Three’ auto makers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) in licensing the technology. Each rejected his proposal, yet began to install electronic intermittent wipers based on Kearns’s design in their cars. Kearns went on to win multimillion-dollar patent infringement cases against Ford Motor and Chrysler for using his idea, a legal battle that later became the basis for a biographical feature film, Flash of Genius, in 2008.
Here we explore more about the events that took place.
Kearns was born in Gary, Indiana in 1927. He became a Corporal in the US Army, assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, then Strategic Services Unit, the Central Intelligence Group and later the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), during World War Two.
Kearns had been an excellent student, and after the war, received a full scholarship to the University of Detroit, where he earned a BSc degree in Mechanical Engineering, and later a Msc in Engineering Mechanics from Wayne State University, Detroit. He went on to receive a PhD from Case Western Reserve University and also earned certificates in nuclear reactor control from Argonne National Laboratories.
In 1957, Kearns joined the faculty of Wayne State University, Department of Engineering Mechanics, rising to a post as associate professor (1963-1967). He went on to work as an engineer for several companies, including Bendix Aerospace Systems and Philco Corporation.
Inspiration for his idea
In 1953, while Kearns and his new wife Phyllis were on honeymoon in Canada, a champagne bottle was opened during a celebration. Its cork flew across the room, striking Kearns in his left eye, causing him to lose most of the vision in it.
A decade later, in 1963 Kearns was driving his Ford Galaxie through a light rain, and the constant movement of the wiper blades irritated his vision. Kearns realised that much like how an eyelid doesn’t blink at a predetermined rate, but rather moves when the eye is dry or when a foreign object lands on its surface, the windshield wiper of a car should act in the same way, altering its wiping rate as the conditions it faced changed.
Kearns thus conceived his invention of an automatic windshield wiper system that would vary the speed of the wipers based on the amount of precipitation on the windshield
Invention of intermittent windshield wipers
Kearns became determined to develop his invention and bring it to market. Building a laboratory in his basement, he founded his own company, Kearns Electronics, and began refining his concept over the next decade, constructing models using the dashboards of salvaged cars to test his invention.
Kearns’ invention was revolutionary in the automotive industry, and he believed it would be worth millions of dollars. His first patent for the invention was filed on 1 December 1964.
In 1963, Kearns fitted his intermittent windshield wiper onto a running Ford Galaxie convertible, and drove it to Ford’s factory in Michigan. Kearns claims that whilst the Ford managers were noncommittal, they did seem interested – and indeed Ford later called Kearns for a second meeting where he met many engineers eager to question him on his invention, and show him an intermittent windshield wiper system of their own they were planning on installing in its Mercury cars. Feeling a kinship with the engineers and presuming a deal with Ford was forthcoming, Kearns revealed many of the workings of his wiper design to Ford’s engineers.
Over the next couple of years, Kearns occasionally met groups of Ford engineers to discuss intermittent wiper technology, yet still Ford didn’t offer Kearns any form of license or partnership, and by 1965 had stopped contact with him. After several years refining his invention, in 1967 Kearns filed for numerous more patents for his design. (Kearns had approached several other car manufacturers, including General Motors and Chrysler, to interest them in licensing his invention, but they too rejected it).
In 1969, Ford introduced the first electronic intermittent windshield wiper, yet Kearns believed that Ford was acting in good faith and that a deal was still possible. However, in 1976, his son Dennis acquired an intermittent wiper control box used by Mercedes-Benz. Upon closer inspection, Kearns realised the design was a copy of his own patented invention. After studying patent filings from Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and others, he realised they had all copied several key element of his design and incorporated these into their own patent filings – without his permission or giving him compensation.
Angry that companies he had admired and worked with were stealing from him as the patent holder, Kearns decided to sue several car manufacturers, including General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Ford (1978) and Chrysler (1982).
The ensuing legal battle was long and gruelling, lasting over a decade. Kearns represented himself in court during parts of the case and fought tirelessly to defend his patent, facing numerous setbacks and challenges along the way, but refused to give up. (His self-representations may have lead to a number of cases being dismissed due to missed deadlines and a lack of court-ordered filings being presented).
In 1990, a jury decided that Ford had indeed infringed on Kearns’ patent, but concluded their infringement wasn’t deliberate. Ford claimed that Kearns’ patent was invalid as his windshield system didn’t contain any new concepts, yet Kearns insisted that the new combination of parts his invention used made it unique. That jury failed to agree on how much he should be awarded, and a later jury ordered Ford to pay Kearns $6.3 million, which was cut to $5.2 million by the judge.
Finally, in 1990, Kearns won a major victory when a federal jury awarded him nearly $30 million in damages from Ford and Chrysler – composed of $10.2 million from Ford (and an agreement to drop all appeals), and $18.7 million plus interest from Chrysler. The US Supreme Court rejected Chrysler’s bid to overturn the award in 1995. Much of the money Kearns was awarded went on legal expenses.
Kearns was obsessed with the battle, with his goal mainly for recognition and vindication rather than the roughly $30 million he was eventually awarded by Ford and Chrysler. Ultimately he was disappointed. Kearns had wanted to be a major manufacturer and produce the intermittent windshield wipers himself to supply to the auto industry, but the courts didn’t stop the companies from using the wipers in the cars they produced. (The suit against GM was dismissed because of a failure to meet filing deadlines.)
Despite his victory, Kearns’ life was forever changed by these events. He suffered from severe depression, alcoholism and a nervous breakdown. Kearns had six children with his wife Phyllis, although the legal battles contributed to his marriage ending in divorce in 1989, shortly before his victory. Whilst he continued to invent and develop new technologies, he never achieved the same success as his initial invention.
Kearns died of brain cancer on 9 February 2005, aged 77. His story was depicted in the 2008 film Flash of Genius, which focused on Kearns’ legal battles and the toll they took on his personal life.
Kearns’ legacy is not only as a brilliant inventor, but also a determined fighter who refused to give up in the face of adversity. His invention of the intermittent windshield wiper is widely regarded as a significant technological advancement in automotive safety and continues to be a standard feature in vehicles today.