TOTAL WIPEOUT

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By SIVAN GOREN

There are those everyday things that are so part of our lives that we don’t give them a second thought. One of these is the humble windscreen wiper, which was patented in 1903 by Mary Anderson. But have you ever thought about that rather cool add-on to the windscreen wiper that we take for granted these days, the intermittent windscreen wiper? There is a story behind its invention that sounds like something out of a movie – in fact, it inspired the 2008 film Flash of Genius.

It all started one evening in August 1953 when Robert Kearns and his wife were celebrating their wedding night and he opened a bottle of champagne. In a freak accident, the cork shot into his face and left him legally blind in his left eye. What has this got to do with the invention of the intermittent windscreen wiper? Well, story goes that about 10 years later, Kearns was driving his new Ford Galaxie while it was drizzling outside. In those days, even the most advanced wipers had two basic settings: one for ‘normal’ rain and one for downpours. Even for people with normal vision the constant back-and-forth movement of the windscreen wipers was distracting and occasionally caused accidents but to Kearns, whose vision was already impaired, it was almost unbearable. And that got him thinking: what if he could invent wipers that would mirror the eye’s natural blinking rhythm and only move across the windscreen every few seconds?

Kearns’s story began in Detroit, the centre of the US automobile industry and home of the ‘Big Three’ car manufacturers: General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. He was raised in River Rouge, a working-class neighbourhood. While growing up Kearns was highly influenced by Ford and its massive industrial River Rouge Complex (commonly known as ‘The Rouge’). With its own docks in the river, a 160km railroad track, electricity plant and integrated steel mill, the Rouge was able to turn raw materials into a complete running vehicle in just four days. Little wonder, then, that when his dad took him to visit the complex, young Bob was blown away by the sheer magnitude of Ford’s operation.

When he finished high school, Kearns joined the US Army and during WWII was a member of the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA. After the war, he studied engineering at the University of Detroit and got his Masters in mechanical engineering at Wayne State University while serving in the US Marine Corps Reserves.

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Kearns had always had an inventive mind and his first, slightly bizarre, invention was a comb that dispensed its own hair tonic (yes, really!) which thankfully did not get beyond the early stages. Various other ideas like an amplifier for people who’d had laryngectomies, a new kind of weather balloon and a navigational system that he planned for the military to use in its Sidewinder missiles also did not pan out.

So back to the windscreen wiper. In 1963, when Kearns had the idea for the intermittent wiper, he was commuting from his home in Detroit, where he lived with his wife and young children, to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, where he was working toward his Ph.D. In order to have a quiet, no-interruptions workspace, he constructed a glassed-in office for himself on one side of the basement, with the other half being his wife’s laundry room, and devoted every spare minute to working on his invention.

The device had four parts and crucially, only one of them moved. It was an invention that was ahead of its time because essentially it was an electronic control system and up until then these had only been used in technology like computers – so in effect it was a huge leap in automotive design. There were three elements in Kearns’s circuit: a transistor, a capacitor, and a variable resistor. The resistor and the capacitor together formed the timer, and the transistor was the switch. The driver would adjust the resistor using a knob, which controlled the current flow into the capacitor. At a certain voltage level, the capacitor would trigger the transistor, which would then turn on and the wipers would wipe once. Every time the wiper motor ran, it would drain voltage out of the capacitor. This would then sink below the threshold level of the transistor, and the transistor would turn off.

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Soon, Kearns had built a working model of his invention and installed it in his own Ford Galaxie and by that October, he decided it was time to present his invention to a car manufacturer. It was perhaps unsurprising that he chose Ford. In the parking lot of the Ford building, he was met by around 10 engineers who worked there. One of them, bringing another car out of the lab, showed Kearns that Ford had also been working on an intermittent wiper. (It was true that Ford’s engineers had been experimenting with vacuum-operated wipers, but Kearns’s wiper had an electric motor that was a far superior design.) Despite this, and while keeping their invention at a good distance from Kearns, the Ford engineers told Kearns they would still like to look at his invention, if he would be willing. He demonstrated it to them and they each took trying it out, even taking Kearns aside individually and asking him how it worked.

When Kearns was asked by Ford to provide his cost to build the wipers and given instructions on Ford’s requirements for testing, Kearns thought he had it made. In his mind, this was the opportunity he has been working towards all this time – he would finally be able to start producing his proud invention. “They called him in as a consultant,” his wife Phyllis later said. “He was very idealistic. He thought it would be great if he could supply wipers to Ford. He thought it was the great American company, and he trusted them. He was very naive.”

Kearns began several months of rigorous testing of his wipers. This involved installing his wipers in an aquarium, which he filled with a mixture of oil and sawdust to simulate load on the wipers. This contraption was then left to operate in the basement, with the ever-obliging Phyllis giving the contents of the aquarium a stir with a wooden spoon every now and then. On 16 November 1964, the wipers had gone through 3 400 000 cycles – 400 000 more than was required by Ford’s engineers for testing purposes. But Kearns was a thorough man.

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By this time Kearns’s finances had been all but depleted trying to support his sizable family on his meagre earnings – which were further eaten into by the constant spending on components for his wipers. He decided to take action. Kearns’s first of many patent applications was filed in December 1964 and in November 1967, it was granted.

Finally Kearns got the news he had been waiting for: Ford told him that his wiper would be used on the 1969 Mercury line. He was even given the prototype of a windscreen wiper motor as a celebratory token and welcomed to the Ford team. It was at this point that Kearns claims he was asked to show the team how his wipers worked – ostensibly because in order for Ford to give Kearns a contract, the law required full disclosure. By this time, Kearns saw no reason not to and explained his invention fully.

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Can you guess what happened next? That’s right, about five months later Kearns was given the boot and told that Ford did not want his wiper system because their other engineers had designed their own. He got his lawyers to attack and they sent letters to Ford, claiming that the company was infringing Kearns’s patents. Ford refuted this and even went so far as to say that Kearns’s patents were not valid. In 1969, Ford came out with the first electronic intermittent windscreen wiper in the industry. It used a transistor, a resistor, and a capacitor – exactly the same as Kearns had designed. He was incensed.

Kearns and his family moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland a few years later and he took a job with the Bureau of Standards. In July 1976, Robert’s son Dennis bought a windscreen wiper control at a Mercedes-Benz dealership. He brought it home to his dad and Robert immediately took it apart. When he saw that even an international manufacturer like Mercedes was using his invention he completely lost it. He wound up hitchhiking to Washington, then getting on a bus headed south. In his confused state he was convinced that Richard Nixon wanted him to go to Australia to build an electric car. He started thinking about his kids and how he’d been so consumed with his work that he’d never even taught them how to fly a kite. When he was found a few days later, he was sitting in a park in Tennessee holding two kites. According to Dennis, his father’s red hair had turned snow white. After spending time in a psychiatric hospital, Kearns came home. After his breakdown, he was unable to work and lived off disability.

In 1974, General Motors began installing intermittent wipers in its cars, and in 1977 Chrysler followed suit, with a host of other soon thereafter. Eventually, in 1978, Kearns filed a legal suit against Ford for patent infringement. Despite the fact that there were several other manufacturers who had also jumped on the intermittent wiper bandwagon, Ford was Kearns’s target – at least initially. It wasn’t even so much about the money; it was the principle. Kearns believed he had been treated unjustly and that what Ford had done was wrong – plain and simple.

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But this was only the beginning. After a 12-year legal battle with Ford, Kearns was awarded $10.1 million. He also sued Chrysler, acting mostly as his own attorney, and in 1992 Chrysler was ordered to pay him $18.7 million with interest. By 1995, after spending over $10 million in legal fees, Kearns received approximately $30 million in compensation for Chrysler’s patent infringement. However, Kearns’s subsequent lawsuit against General Motors was dismissed, as were his claims against other foreign manufacturers. The years of court battles took a toll on the family, especially the couple’s marriage. Robert and Phyllis Kearns separated in the early ʼ80s and eventually divorced.

By 1989, Ford alone had sold 20.6 million cars with intermittent wipers, and made a profit that has been calculated at $557 million. These days, about thirty million intermittent wipers are sold around the world each year. On 9 February 2005, Kearns died of brain cancer complicated by Alzheimer’s disease.

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