Robert Kearns, 35, who had a blind left eye, had trouble seeing the road with traditional windscreen wipers. In 1962, he had a brainstorm… “what if a windshield wiper paused between each wipe, like a blinking eye? At this time, wipers only had two settings (one for light rain and one for heavy rain).
At the time, the auto industry made the bulk of its profits by selling add-ons and upgrades; something like a technologically-advanced windshield wiper meant a financial windfall.
Kearns who had a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, built his first intermittent wiper prototype which he housed in a red box marked “DO NOT OPEN” and installed it in his Ford Galaxie. Kearns filed a patent and planned to set up a factory in Detroit and become a major supplier of windshield wipers.
Then, as happens to many inventors…his idea was stolen. This time, Ford stole it. For nearly 30 years, Kearns waged an uphill legal battle against Ford. In the end, he won millions of dollars — but it cost him his sanity, his marriage, and the remaining years of his life. Kearns’ story is a reminder of the shortcomings of the US patent system for independent inventors.
In 1963, Kearns set up a 45-minute meeting with 10 of Ford’s engineering team. His idea was to sign a deal to license his technology, open a wiper factory of his own, and become the automobile industry’s go-to supplier. Ford expressed interest but told him the wipers had to run for 3m cycles to meet their standards.
Kearns bought an aquarium, filled it with a mixture of oil and sawdust, installed a pair of his wipers inside, and let them run for 6 months straight. Upon passing the test, Kearns filed the first patent for his intermittent wipers. Ford offered him a contract with one condition, because wipers were a “safety item,” all of Kearns’ engineering had to be disclosed before the contract was signed.
Kearns showed Ford exactly how his device worked and was welcomed to the team. Five months later, he was dismissed. Ford, said it had come up with its own intermittent wiper “totally on its own”. In 1969, Ford debuted its first-of-its-kind intermittent windshield wiper on its line of Mercury cars. The wipers were a hot commodity and were soon adopted throughout the auto industry: All mimicked the exact configuration of Kearns’ device.
Kearns had a mental breakdown. Once recuperated, he hired a lawyer and notified Ford of the infringement. Ford said Kearns’ patent was invalid because it wasn’t “sufficiently inventive.”. In 1978, Kearns filed a patent infringement suit against Ford, seeking $350m — $50 for every intermittent-wiper-equipped car Ford sold. Big companies like Ford have found that it’s cheaper to steal a patented product and face any legal repercussions later than is it to license it. Most inventors simply can’t afford to spend millions of dollars in court.
The now 60 year old inventor hired 5 different legal firms, and eventually decided to defend himself. He slept on the floor of his office, surrounded by boxes of evidence. He recruited his children to pour over documents. He was so obsessed , his wife filed for divorce. He turned down a $30m settlement offer that would’ve cleared Ford from any wrongdoing.
In 1990, 12 years after the filing, the case went to trial. and Ford was to pay Kearns a settlement of $10.2m. Though Kearns was a millionaire, he continued to sleep on the floor of an unfurnished apartment stocked with documents, notes, and witness statements. Then he filed a similar patent infringement suit against Chrysler.
Again, he represented himself and this time, he was awarded $18.7m. By the time he died in 2005, the intermittent windshield wiper was an industry standard, built into millions of automobiles around the world.
Kearns gained $30m in settlements but he never got what he had sought from the beginning: control over his own invention.
When the musician was in a car accident, his guitar was destroyed. The accident was a Fender bender