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This is the story of how a simple circuit cost some of the major car manufacturers millions of dollars.

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An American engineer by the name of Robert Kearns was driving a 1962 Ford Galaxie convertible. This car was equipped with 2 speed wipers, slow and fast. 

Mr Kearns realised that this system was no good. When there was a light drizzle of rain, he would select the slow speed but the rain was so light that the wipers were dragging across a dry windscreen, making a horrible noise, wearing out the wiper blades and putting unnecessary strain on the wiper mechanism. Windscreen clearing ability aside, the constant tick tock tick tock was distracting drivers and making them fall asleep whilst driving.

Mr Kearns realised that the wipers need a dwell period. Where the wiper would sweep the windscreen, rest for a bit, then wipe again.

So he set about to devise a solution. This was no problem for Mr Kearns who had previously graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Detroit and went on to earn a masters degree in Engineering Mechanics.

When studying for his PhD, he set about working on a new wiper system in the basement of his home. This took a long time as he was concentrating his efforts on his degree but after many prototypes he finally came up with a system he was happy with.

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Another system with variable wiping speed had previously been developed by a company called Trico. Their system was far from reliable though. It was pneumatically operated and over complicated and had a high failure rate. A few other companies developed similar variable wipe systems but the issue was always reliability.

Mr Kearns had perfected it though. His system was so simple and had minimal failure points. One transistor, one capacitor and one potentiometer. All these components worked together to introduce a dwell period where the wipers would stop between sweeps which could be adjusted by the driver.

He even envisioned the first early rain sensing system where the wiper speed would be automatically be adjusted by the amount of drag on the wiper blades.

This system was so simple, affordable and cheap to manufacture that Mr Kearns saw the gap in the market and decided to start marketing it to the vehicle manufacturers.

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Mr Kearns had driven Fords his entire life and had massive brand loyalty so Ford was the natural first choice for him to demonstrate his new product. He had installed the system in the aforementioned Galaxie so he brought it along to show. It turned out that Ford had been trying to develop their own system with limited success. Ford put Mr Kearns system through their own testing process and decided to implement it in 1969.

 

As soon as Ford understood and refined the system, they dropped Mr Kearns and told him they had no further interest. Luckily for Mr Kearns, he had the patent for his circuit granted and published in 1967. His rights to his bespoke design were enshrined in law putting him in a profitable position. 

Mr Kearns was pretty shocked when in 1969, Ford turned around and introduced the first electronic intermittent wiper system. Not long after that, GM jumped aboard along with Chrysler, all using the same system designed by Mr Kearns. A bigger shock came for him in 1976 when he found out his system had crossed the globe and was implemented by Mercedes Benz.

He soon lost heart of becoming a major supplier and started a war with Ford. He launched a lawsuit in 1978, seeking 141 million dollars in compensation from Ford but they fought back, claiming the design wasn't original because all the parts were readily available on the market. Mr Kearns fought back justifiably, arguing that it wasn't the components, it was how they were combined and this is what justified his patent.

In 1982, he filed a similar case against Chrysler, amongst 26 other companies including, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Honda, Isuzu, Nissan, Peugeot and others. 

For Mr Kearns, it wasn't about the money, it was about protecting the patent system. If someone invented something, they should own the rights to it.

The manufacturers had plenty of time and money on their hands and were prepared to spend it, even if they were in the wrong. By 1990, Ford owed Mr Kearns 325 million dollars. They offered him a settlement of 30 million but he rejected it on the principle that they refused to acknowledge that he designed the system. 

Eventually in 1990, the courts ruled in Mr Kearns favour, saying that Ford had infringed his patent unintentionally. He got 10.2 million for this and 2 years later, Chrysler were also ordered to pay him 11.3 million. Chrysler tried to appeal but in 1995, the appeal was rejected and they were ordered to pay Mr Kearns 18.7 million plus interest. 

By this stage, Mr Kearns was so tired of fighting lawsuits that he missed out on filing paperwork to sue many other manufacturers. The rest of the lawsuits were dismissed in 1996 but but by this stage, he had spent all his money on legal fees and countless manufacturers were using his system on tens of millions of cars.

The monetary fees weren't the only issue. In the course of all this, Mr Kearns wife left him, all his business partnerships broke down. The fight to be recognised for what he invented had taken everything from him.

On February 9th 2005, Mr Kearns died of brain cancer. Until the day he died, he always had a Ford parked outside his his house. 

Not many people know about Mr Kearns and the life he led but in 2008, there was a movie released called Flash of Genius which would spread his story to the world, widely available on most torrent and streaming sites.robertkearns.jpg.acc985d15fd3ca631343d6ae1803d963.jpg

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Great article! @Barry

This was a typical David Vs. Goliath case. And must be a PR nightmare for Ford lol. 

Looking forward to read such interesting articles @Barry

 

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Meh! Should have taken the $30 million and chilled for the remainder of his life. Its not like he invented the cure for cancer or free energy for the world that he wanted recognition for it.

It was just a car wiper system and even after all that still no one knows or remembers him. 

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Kinda like story of Gary Kildall who would have been the bill gates

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13 hours ago, desertdude said:

Meh! Should have taken the $30 million and chilled for the remainder of his life. Its not like he invented the cure for cancer or free energy for the world that he wanted recognition for it.

It was just a car wiper system and even after all that still no one knows or remembers him. 

It was a car wiper system but it’s the biggest car wiper system in the world. 

Not everything in life is about money. A man needs to have principles and morals. 

Mr Kearns was trying to protect the patent system. What is the point of patents and intellectual property if anyone can steal another persons ideas without consequence. 

12 minutes ago, hAwX said:

Kinda like story of Gary Kildall who would have been the bill gates

I don’t know about this, I need to read about it now. Thanks. 

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4 hours ago, Barry said:

It was a car wiper system but it’s the biggest car wiper system in the world. 

Not everything in life is about money. A man needs to have principles and morals. 

Mr Kearns was trying to protect the patent system. What is the point of patents and intellectual property if anyone can steal another persons ideas without consequence. 

I don’t know about this, I need to read about it now. Thanks. 

Unfortunately nobody can sue the Chinese government, who, if they know what the term "intellectual property" means, simply does not care about stuff like patents and morality.

Edited by treks

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It could be the biggest car wiper system in the universe and maybe it is, but its just that, a car wiper system. If he didnt think of it, someone else would have come up with something similar or even better. I don't buy all that protect the patent BS. He probably thought he could milk for more but was wrong. 

And I reiterate it was just a wiper system, a billion other patent battles have been fought and won. What makes this so special?

Some people think too highly of themselves and maybe he thought a 100ft golden statue of his would be made at the door of the Ford Motor Co where people from world over would make a pilgrimage to pay their respects to the wiper system god .IF he got recognition for it that is. 

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