The epic, decades-long battle between Ford and a small-time inventor

50 years ago, Ford stole a patented design for a new type of windshield wiper. But they picked the wrong inventor to screw with.

September 2, 2019

 

On a rainy day in 1962, Robert Kearns had one of those meandering thoughts that separate great inventors from mere mortals: What if a windshield wiper paused between each wipe, like a blinking eye? 

He constructed prototypes in his basement, filed a patent, and began to dream up a plan: He’d set up a pretty little factory in Detroit, become a major supplier of windshield wipers, and go down in history as one of the automobile industry’s great innovators.

Then, Ford stole his idea.

For nearly 30 years, Kearns waged an impossible legal battle against one of America’s most powerful companies. 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 remembered as one of history’s great David vs. Goliath lawsuits. But it’s also a reminder of the shortcomings of the US patent system for independent inventors.

An inventor is born

 

Born in 1927, Kearns spent his youth in Detroit, Michigan, ground zero for the flourishing American automobile industry.

As a kid, he toured Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Complex (then the largest integrated factory in the world) and marveled at the auto giant’s innovations. “The automotive — that’s all there was,” he later told the New Yorker’s John Seabrook. “If you were an inventor, and you really wanted to reach people, you invented for the automotive.”

Robert Kearns (second from left) with his family (via Facebook’s public figure page)

Determined to make his mark in this industry, Kearns earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and began working toward his Ph.D. He toyed around with various non-automotive inventions — a grease-dispensing hair comb, a voice amplifier, a weather balloon, a navigation system — but nothing stuck. 

Then, in 1962, the 35-year-old had a stroke of genius.

A windshield wiper that mimics the human eye

 

A decade earlier, on his wedding night, Kearns had popped open a bottle of champagne in his face and permanently blinded his left eye. His impaired vision caused many hardships, one of which was operating windshield wipers in the rain.

In the early 1960s, wipers only had two settings (one for light rain and one for heavy rain) and were controlled by a vacuum-powered system that ran continuously and didn’t allow for any variance in frequency.

For Kearns, this didn’t suffice — and driving in the rain one day, he figured that a windshield wiper ought to function as a human eye, allowing the driver to control the pauses between, and speed of, the swipes.

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 big bucks.

Kearns, years later, holding a prototype of his device (via The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Kearns holed himself up in a corner of his basement with a pile of off-the-shelf electronics — transistors, capacitors, and variable resistors — and built his first intermittent wiper prototype.

He housed the device in a red box marked “DO NOT OPEN” and installed it in his Ford Galaxie. And in early 1963, he drove to the Ford factory to make his sales pitch.

A fateful meeting with Ford

 

Through a mutual connection, Kearns was able to set up a 45-minute meeting with Ford’s engineering team. His plan was simple: He’d blow them away with his intermittent wiper, sign a deal to license his technology, open a wiper factory of his own, and become the automobile industry’s go-to supplier.

On the big day, Kearns was greeted by 10 engineers in the parking lot, who peppered him with questions about his invention. They expressed interest but told him the wipers had to run for 3m cycles to meet their standards.

So, 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 and returned to Ford.

The inventor made a series of presentations to Ford’s engineers and executives — and this time they offered him a contract. But it came with one condition: Ford claimed that, because wipers were a “safety item,” all of Kearns’ engineering had to be disclosed before the contract was signed.

An image from Kearns’ patent, filed in 1964 and approved in 1967 (via Google Patents)

Sensing that he was close to fulfilling his dream, Kearns showed Ford exactly how his device worked and was welcomed aboard the team.

But the celebration didn’t last long: 5 months later, he was dismissed. Ford, he was told, had come up with its own intermittent wiper totally on its own and no longer needed his services.

When corporations steal

 

In 1969, Ford debuted a fancy, first-of-its-kind intermittent windshield wiper on its line of Mercury cars.

The wipers, which cost Ford $10 to make and sold for $37, were a hot commodity and were soon adopted by others in the auto industry: By the mid-1970s, Chrysler, General Motors, Saab, Honda, Volvo, Rolls-Royce, Mercedes and dozens of other big-name brands had a version of intermittent wipers on their cars.

All mimicked the exact configuration of Kearns’ device.

Kearns was so aghast when he found out about the infringement that he had a mental breakdown and had to spend two weeks in a psychiatric ward. His hair, once red, turned snow white.

An early Ford intermittent wiper component (via eBay)

Once recuperated, he hired a lawyer and wrote to Ford to inform the company of the infringement. The company’s response: They had not stolen Kearns’ idea and his patent was invalid on the grounds that 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.

Ford then pulled the big corporation card: It stalled, hoping Kearns would “lose heart or run out of money.”

Kearns v. Goliath

 

In the corporate world, there is a concept called “efficient infringement.”  

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 small-time inventors simply can’t afford to spend millions of dollars dragging a case through district courts.

“Multinational companies know that screwing over suppliers is easy money,” says Mike Collins, an author who has studied manufacturing for 30 years. “You see it time and time again.”

But as Ford would soon find out, Kearns wasn’t going to give up.

The sexagenarian inventor hired (and fired) 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 pore over documents. And he became so unilaterally obsessed with the case that his wife filed for divorce.

Kearns presenting evidence in court (via Dennis-Kearns.com)

As Kearns waged this slow, agonizing war, his case became less about financial compensation and more about calling out big corporations for stealing intellectual property from inventors. At one point, he turned down a $30m settlement offer that would’ve cleared Ford from any wrongdoing. 

“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.”

In January of 1990 — 12 years after the filing — the case finally went to trial. And when it did, Kearns vanished. “I had to go,” he later told People. “If I had stayed, it would have legitimized what was happening.” He was deep in the Maryland woods, cooking knockwurst over a portable stove when a verdict was finally reached.

Despite selling 20.6m cars (worth $575m in profit) equipped with intermittent wipers, Ford was to pay Kearns a settlement of $10.2m.

Kearns was not pleased.

“My intent was to have a small shop in Detroit, have nice shrubbery around the plant, hire people — that’s been my dream all my life,” he said. “When they offer you a settlement, they’re really sending you to a park bench.”

The aftermath

 

Though Robert Kearns was a newly-minted millionaire, he continued to live an ascetic life, sleeping on the floor of an unfurnished apartment stocked with documents, notes, and witness statements.

The following year, he was back in court filing a similar patent infringement suit against Chrysler.

Headlines harped on Kearns’ victory (via assorted newspapers, 1980s-1990) 

Once again, he represented himself — a lone inventor up against the giant auto industry — and this time, he was awarded $18.7m. Kearns called the sum a “booby prize” (a prize typically given to a last-place finisher as a joke) and left the money uncollected for years in protest.

He filed suit against 18 other automakers, but they were dismissed for various reasons. (In one instance his son, Dennis, was found to have wrongly obtained documents by sparking a romantic affair with a paralegal at the firm representing Porsche).

Eventually, Kearns bought himself an estate in Maryland and “entered an uneasy retirement.” But even in his waning years, he still couldn’t let the patent cases go.

By the time he died in 2005, the intermittent windshield wiper was an industry standard, built into millions of automobiles around the world.

Today, he is regarded by many inventors as a personal hero for waging a war against the corporate world’s “steal now, pay later” ethos — even though he fell short of his ultimate dream. 

“Kearns gained some vindication in the form of $30m in settlements from Ford and Chrysler,” read his Washington Post obituary. “But he never got what he had sought from the beginning:” control over his own invention.

Note: For more on Kearns, check out John Seabrook’s excellent 1993 New Yorker article on the inventor’s saga, and the 2005 feature film, Flash of Genius.

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