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Flash of Genius: The Story of Robert Kearns

Posted in auto industry, Car Accessories, Car Tech, Chrysler, Design, Ford, Legal by Vito Rispo | September 25th, 2008 | 11 Responses |

The new film, Flash of Genius, is the story of the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, Robert Kearns. It’s billed as a “hero versus the establishment” story, but the actual history is a bit more complicated.

Carmakers had known for a long time that existing windshield wipers weren’t getting the job done properly. They moved constantly, often scraping a dry windshield tearing up the blades edges. The solution was also obvious: an intermittent system that would wipe, then pause for a few seconds, then wipe again. Several inventors and engineers at Ford came up with designs, but each had various problems of their own.

Robert Kearns eventually came along with a system that worked better than the previous ones. He used an electrical current to flow and fill a capacitor, when the charge reached a certain voltage, it discharged and the wipers wiped. He took it to Ford, they showed interest, but eventually changed their minds. Ford did, however, end up using a system similar to Kearns’s. So Kearns sued.

Ford’s legal team argued that his patents were overly broad and therefore invalid. Former Ford engineer, Ted Daykin, told The New Yorker in a 1993 article, “An electronic timing device was an obvious thing to try next. How can you patent something that is in the natural evolution of technology?” The intermittent wiper, according to Daykin, was really the work of dozens of anonymous engineers at Ford, Trico, and other firms.

It really was an exceedingly simple and broad design, and yet Kearns eventually won his suit — $10.2 million from Ford in 1990 and $18.7 million from Chrysler in 1995, though both juries determined that the companies had not intentionally infringed on his patents.

The moral of the story? I’m not really sure. Patent an obvious idea and you can extort money from large corporations? The little guy is always right, even when he’s wrong? I can’t really pin down the exact moral here. I just know it hard for me to root for Robert Kearns.

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11 Responses

  1. Dennis Kearns says:

    I like the Juries sat thru the FIVE trials. Ford and Daykin argued the 35 patents were overly broad from 1967 to 1991. The weeks before trial they decided this wasn’t true and NEVER argued that to the jury.

    They withstood the test of 5 Jury trials and always stood up. The Auto industry could argue anything before going to court. But if they argued that to the jury it’s obvious the jurrors would see that argument as inauthentic.

    Leonardo DaVinci’s designs for the helicopter were simple and broad. Just hundred of years ahead of his time. Kearns patented designs were elegant and with 35 patents granted by the United States covered everything that worked well.

    Dr. Ernst Fuhrmann, CEO Porsche, described it to me as one of the most elegant designs ever. He felt bad stealing it.

    Willful infringement is difficult to prove if you don’t have video of them taking your ideas.

    I’ll leave you to your determination as to moral. From 1963 to 1991 the most Ford paid for a patent was 11 cents per unit. By the time we went to trial with Chrysler a few years later, they were paying $2 per unit.

    Since you weren’t there and don’t know, why not leave the judgments to the jurors?

  2. David Prokop says:

    I think the movie Flash of Genius doesn’t do a great job of articulating Robert Kearns main motivation for his lawsuits. I don’t think it was for the money or fame and I don’t think it was to protect inventors rights, I believe his motivation was to build the Kearns Corporation with his kids. To supply the wiper motor to all the car makers. That’s why he went to Ford (a family owned company), and why he wanted the car makers barred from making it. Kearns wanted to build a company and leave a growing company as a legacy to his 6 kids. I’m an inventor with 14 patents and my dream is the same for my kids.

  3. Lance Perkins says:

    Dennis, I’m so thankful for your father and his determination and the great sacrifices your family made. People can’t accept being stepped on by giants and your dad has given them power, the little people, the inventors.

  4. Annette says:

    I’m just now watching the movie. It is painful to watch how these major corporations took advantage of Robert Kearns invention. Since those major corporations were so prominant in that era, it’s understandable how they were able to use that to take advantage of the ‘little man’s’ ideas.
    Since I am a mother of four children, it was difficult to watch what the family went through but I had so much admiration for Robert Kearns’ fight for justice. I know it must have been difficult for the entire family.
    I commend Dennis for standing by his father.

  5. Mike says:

    Ironic how the company who invented the automobile is reduced to stealing inventions of others, eh? Ford innocent of theft. Ha! If you spent just 5 minutes researching Ford’s history you would clearly see Ford’s ongoing abusive behavior of patent infringement of many inventors, and other companies, including even Toyota! The auto companies are as bad as the airlines, rich know-nothings, who never ran a business. These auto companies have been losing money forever, and they cant even make money stealing other peoples ideas. ha!

  6. Butch Deadlift says:

    Uh. Ford didn’t invent the automobile, sparky. That’d be Mercedes-Benz.

  7. Kearns_fan says:

    No need to twist the facts here or use some fancy legal jargon to downplay Kearns’ “flash of genious” especially if you are going to take the automakers side anyway.

    This is so simple: Neither the idea of the intermittent wiper nor the technology to create it was original. Many different people, most of them working for the big auto corporations were already working on it. But it was an individual as eccentric and as obsessed as Kearns who perfected it first. And when he tried naturally to take credit from it, Ford gave him the shaft with Chrysler and the others soon following suit.

    It is inspiring that people like Robert Kearns exist and show the rest of us what it takes to really stand 100% behind your beliefs. Even if the he cost is losing your wife. Phyllis was a nice “babe” but turns out she was not a true “woman” after all (i.e. …la…la…”stand by your man” …la…la…). Kudos to his kids for standing by their father!!!

  8. Zakizamani Osman says:

    It is true that the story did not articulate the legal processes well. But i had a similar experience as Kearns did. We had to go up against a local corporation and was discouraged to take action against what we considered was injustice done to us. It didn’t take as long as Kearn’s case but I felt that I’m so much more of a wuss for accepting a settlement. We lost money despite. Not many of us have the conviction or strength to stand up for our own lives and that is one of the most obvious lesson we can learn here.

    Kearns understood the consequences and went all the way. It is hard when you’re responsible not only for yourself, but for people you brought into your world. I wouldn’t blame the wife as she too was entangled. Her scars needed change to heal and that change didn’t involve Kearns anymore.

    If we are to think that, globally, we have evolved into this sustainable independent society that celebrates freedom and liberty, we are wrong. We are just living at the expense of somebody elses misery. We don’t see them. We can change that by being more involved. Fuck the law! The law has to serve the masses not the privileged, if not, those underprivileged would have been born in vain. Truth prevails no matter what! We are living at the age that is paying for secrets and manipulation of yesterdays already.

    If corporation wants to be a fair entity, than they could have easily just look into covering the interest of all those involve. Being fair is hard to do, i know. But when the “being fair” option is blatantly disregarded, the truth comes and bites ya in the ass! Ford learned a lesson and I guess we could do too. The truth makes changes and changes hurt but when the hurt heals it benefits all involved. That is what the truth is all about.

    I wish the Kearns family all the best and that they stay proud of their dad and husband. Please use the money wisely and maybe into a corporation mankind can be proud of.

  9. sheila Sainson says:

    I saw a Flash of Genius, last night for the first time. I was hoping that this move would have a happy ending for Robert Kearns. I was also glad that his oldest son finally understood what his father was fighting for justices. I to was going against a big corporation. I too feel like I was doing it only. Without the support of my spouse, but I give up!!!!!!! I m so ashame that I took the easy way out and did not stick up for what had happen. I admire you, Dennis for hold fast with your dad and your brothers and sister. I am sure you and your siblings was the reason that he did not give up. I hope that your family is at peace. Like the gentlemen said before big bussiness will rob and steal from the little men. I live in a state were big bussiness has be doing it for years. Delaware( Dupont Country)

  10. Ivan Antony John says:

    Really a touching movie…
    The spirit of Kearns is a motivation for all involved in fight for Justice and recognition.

    Really, a well told story :)

  11. Patricia Conklin says:

    To the family of Robert Kearns I think what your father did took an amazing amount of courage and a dedication to the rights we are supposed to have in this country and believe me I understand fully what he was up against, when you your adversaries have much more money and power tehn you and will stop at noting to shut you up and destroy you.
    I think you should be extremely proud of you father for standing up and speaking for what is right even though they pulled every dirty trick in the book with no regard or respect for anything but dead presidents (like they did ot have enough) they have to cheat to win BUT they did not win ..unfortunately at a great cost to your family but he did the right thing!!
    Patricia Marion Conklin