On his wedding night in a romantic country inn in Ontario, Canada, a Detroiter named Robert Kearns suffered a most untimely and improbable injury.
A decade later, that injury inspired his invention of a device for motor vehicles that eventually earned him millions of dollars and worldwide fame as the David waging court battles against armies of lawyers for Goliath auto companies who had tried to take advantage of him.
The mishap in 1953 occurred as Kearns and his bride, Phyllis, retired to their room, and he attempted to open a celebratory bottle of champagne. “I’d never opened champagne before. And — pow! The cork goes off, hits me directly in the left eye, I fall back on the bed bleeding all over the sheets, Phyllis comes out of the bathroom screaming. I mean, it was a mess,” he recalled years later in a magazine interview.
Nine years went by and, in 1962, Kearns was driving his Ford Galaxie in a drizzle on a November day in Detroit, peering to see with his one good eye through his rain-splattered windshield.
In those days, all vehicles had two-speed wipers with a low or high setting for light or heavy rainfall, and nothing in between for drizzly conditions. As he fiddled with his wipers, Kearns had a Eureka moment — why can’t a wiper work more like an eyelid and blink?
That rainy-day thought crystalized into his invention of intermittent windshield wipers, a revolutionary advance for the global auto industry.
At the time, his previous inventions included a comb that squirted hair dressing, an amplifier for patients of laryngectomy surgery, a weather balloon, and a navigating system for the U.S. military, all of which didn’t gain much traction.
For his windshield wiper idea, Kearns bought off-the-shelf electronics — transistors, capacitors, and variable resistors — and set up shop in his basement. Over the course of multiple weekends, he produced his first prototype of the intermittent wipers by the summer of 1963 and installed it on his sedan. His setup varied the speed and intervals between wiper swipes, depending on the amount of water on the windshield.
Kearns, who grew up admiring Ford Motor Co., was pleased when the automaker provided him with wiper motors for his experiments. He even drove to Dearborn, where Ford had numerous research and development activities, and showed off his intermittent wipers to 10 engineers who were waiting for him in a parking lot. He was told that his wiper would have to run 3 million cycles without failure to meet Ford’s standards.
On the way home, Kearns bought an aquarium, filled it with a mixture of oil and sawdust to simulate a load on the wiper, installed his wiper blades in the tank, and ran them for six straight months, surpassing Ford’s standard by 400,000 cycles.
From there, Kearns filed his first patent for the intermittent wiper device and returned to Ford for more presentations. The company offered him a contract with a caveat — because the wipers were considered a “safety device,” Kearns had to reveal the workings of his invention before he could sign the deal.
Thinking he was on the cusp of immense success, Kearns showed the Ford engineers exactly how his invention worked. Finally, Kearns thought, his dream of setting up a factory with nice shrubbery around the building was about to come true. He would hire Detroiters, and become a supplier of intermittent wipers to the auto industry.
Five months later that dream became a nightmare, as Ford relayed they had developed their own intermittent wiper and his services were no longer needed.
In 1969, a Ford Mercury with intermittent windshield wipers rolled off the assembly line. By the mid-1970s, every automobile, from inexpensive Hondas to expensive Rolls Royces, were equipped with intermittent wipers using the very same engineering — with transistors, capacitors, and variable resistors — that Kearns developed in his basement.
His achievement consumed the rest of his life. He wound up in a psychiatric facility, and emerged to spend the next three decades in court battles, sometimes representing himself against the auto companies he accused of stealing his invention.
In 1976 Kearns moved his family to Gaithersburg, Md., where he got a job with the state Bureau of Standards testing the skid resistance of different kinds of road surfaces. One day, one of his sons brought home a wiper control device from a Mercedes Benz that Kearns took apart in his basement.
“I saw (the) capacitor, resistor, transistor — it was all there,” Kearns said. He was so stunned and sickened, his red hair turned snow-white almost overnight, one of his sons recalled.
Upon his release from a psychiatric hospital, Kearns hired a lawyer to pursue a patent infringement case. In its denial, Ford said the patent was invalid and was “insufficiently inventive.”
“I just felt very diminished,” Kearns told a reporter for The New Yorker. “It’s like you’re a nothing, you’re a gnat. You don’t count. You just don’t count.”
In 1978, he sued Ford in federal court in Detroit for patent infringement, seeking $350 million, which represented $50 for each car Ford sold with intermittent wipers. The automaker’s response was to stall the proceedings with legal maneuvering and delays, a process that went on for 11 years. The goal was to frustrate Kearns, in hopes that he would go away.
Twelve years after it was filed, the Ford case finally went to trial. After a month of testimony, Ford offered $30 million to settle it. Kearns refused. “This case isn’t about money,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “If I walk out of there with nothing more than a check, then I’m nothing more than an employee of Ford.”
The jury in a second trial awarded him $5.2 million, and Ford upped it to $10.2 million, hoping he would go away.
Kearns accepted that verdict and set his sights on Chrysler. By this time he was living in an unfurnished apartment or sleeping in his office, almost buried under files, documents, notes, and other court papers.
His grown children became his law clerks, learning to write briefs and filing documents in federal court. The Chrysler case went to trial in 1981.
After months of legal proceedings, a jury entered a split decision — Chrysler had not infringed on Kearns’ patent, but the automaker owed him royalty payments of 90 cents for each of the more than 12.5 million intermittent wiper units installed on the company’s vehicles.
Kearns collected nearly $20 million. He would file 12 more lawsuits against other automakers, all of which ended in dismissals. He died in 2005 at the age of 78, having never produced another invention.
The late Federal Judge Avern Cohn, who presided over five of the trials, said what Kearns really wanted was to be a manufacturer. “He was feisty, determined, and he established the fact that he made a contribution to the auto industry that was unique,” Cohn told The New Yorker. “His zeal got ahead of his judgment.”