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.