David vs Goliath
March 10, 1927: Inventer Robert Kerns is Born
On this day in 1927 Robert Kerns, the inventor who won suits against Ford and Chrysler, is born. Kearns patented a design for an intermittent windshield wiper and later won multi-million dollar judgments against Chrysler and Ford for using his concept without permission.
Of course today we take intermittent wipers for granted as they are a standard feature of most cars. But back in the ’60’s the auto manufactures were struggling with perfecting the idea. Kearns’ real-life David versus Goliath story about taking on the auto giants was made into a movie titled “Flash of Genius” that opened in 2008 and starred Greg Kinnear.
Kearns worked as a professor of engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit. He first patented his wiper design in 1967 and tried to license his invention to various automakers but failed to make a deal with any of them. In 1960 Ford debuted the first intermittent wiper; other car companies eventually followed suit. In the late 1970s, Kearns sued Ford for patent infringement and went on to take legal action against more than two dozen other automakers.
The ensuing legal battles lasted more than a decade and consumed Kearns, who often acted as his own attorney. Kearns’ quest cost him his marriage and also may have contributed to a nervous breakdown he suffered. In 1990, a jury ruled that Ford was guilty of non-deliberate patent infringement and Kearns was later awarded some $10 million. He also went on to win a $20 million judgment against Chrysler.
“I need the money, but that’s not what this is about,” he told Regardie’s magazine in 1990. “I’ve spent a lifetime on this. This case isn’t just a trial. It’s about the meaning of Bob Kearns’s life.”
He got his idea on his wedding night in 1953, when a champagne cork struck him in the left eye, which eventually became blind. The blinking of his eye led him to wonder if he could make windshield wipers that worked the same way, that would move at intervals instead of in a constant back-and-forth motion.
He applied for patents, mounted his wipers on his 1962 Ford Galaxie and drove to Ford’s headquarters. Engineers swarmed over his car, at one point sending him out of the workroom, convinced he was activating the wipers with a button in his pocket.
Ford’s engineers had been experimenting with vacuum-operated wipers, but Kearns was the first to invent an intermittent wiper with an electric motor. After a while, however, Ford stopped answering his calls, and Kearns was left on his own.
In 1976, Kearns’s son bought an electric circuit for a Mercedes-Benz intermittent wiper, which Kearns took apart, only to discover it was almost identical to what he’d invented. He had a nervous breakdown soon after.
He boarded a bus, with delusions of riding to Australia and being commissioned by former President Richard M. Nixon to build an electric car. Police picked him up in Tennessee, and his family checked him into the psychiatric ward at Montgomery General Hospital. When he came out after a few weeks, his red hair had turned white.
After 12 years of litigation, Ford finally offered to pay Kearns millions of dollars to settle the case. His attorney at the time estimated that Kearns could have received at least $50 million from Ford and comparable amounts from other carmakers.
Kearns refused the offer.
In July 1990, a federal jury ruled that Ford had unintentionally infringed on Kearns’s patent and awarded him $10.2 million.
After the Ford settlement, Kearns turned his sights on Chrysler. In December 1991, a federal jury ruled that Chrysler had infringed unfairly on his patent. Firing his law firm a week before the damage phase of the trial, Kearns argued his case and was awarded more than $20 million.
Chrysler appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Kearns was entitled to the money but rejected his argument that Chrysler should be prohibited from using his design
In his final years, he drove around in two aging vehicles: a 1978 Ford pickup and a 1965 Chrysler. Neither had intermittent wipers.