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.