Case Western Reserve University alumnus Robert W. Kearns, the independent inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper system, is the subject of a new film opening Friday, October 3. Kearns used one of the university's labs to work on the wiper system while he also completed his doctoral dissertation.
The movie is generating international Oscar buzz.
Playing the role of Kearns in "Flash of Genius" is Oscar-nominated actor Greg Kinnear, who has appeared in such box office hits as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "As Good As It Gets." Co-starring with Kinnear is television actress Lauren Graham ("The Gilmore Girls") as his first wife, Phyllis. Kinnear, as Kearns, briefly refers to Case Western Reserve in the film.
"Flash of Genius" chronicles the legal struggles he faced prior to winning one of the most well-known patent cases against corporate goliaths Ford and Chrysler. He shopped his invention around to various automakers but did not reach a licensing deal with any of them. But carmakers eventually began offering the intermittent wipers in 1969 as standard or optional equipment. Kearns had received his patents in 1967.
Harry W. Mergler, Kearns' dissertation adviser at CIT and now an emeritus professor of mechanical engineering, remembers Kearns fondly and said he was "a wonderful student."
Now 84 and living in Westlake, Ohio, Mergler recalled how Kearns worked on his famous invention while a student in his lab.
"Bob told me he had been working on the idea of this windshield wiper control system," Mergler said. "He had said to me, 'Would you mind if while I'm here and doing these other projects, can I have an area of the lab to continue my work on this development?' Of course I told him he was welcome to do that."
Kearns sued Ford Motor Co. in 1978 and Chrysler in 1982, claiming patent infringement, essentially stealing his idea of the intermittent wipers. After a long and protracted battle, a jury finally decided in 1990 that Ford infringed on Kearns' patent, though it concluded the infringement was not deliberate. By 1995, after many court battles reaching all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he had received approximately $30 million in compensation for their "non-deliberate" infringement. He had spent more than $10 million in legal fees and suffered physical and emotional breakdowns.
The road to intermittent wipers began on Kearns' wedding night in 1953, when an errant champagne cork shot into his left eye, which eventually went almost completely blind. Nearly a decade later, in 1963, while simultaneously working on his Ph.D. at CIT and teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, Kearns was driving his Ford Galaxie through a light rain, and the constant movement of the wiper blades irritated his already troubled vision. He modeled his mechanism on the human eye, which automatically blinks every few seconds.
Mergler also had a role in helping Kearns in his long battle with the automakers after he was asked to file an amicus curiae, or friend-of-the-court brief, in support of Kearns, bringing attention to judges any information that may be of considerable help to them as they decide the case. In Mergler's case, the brief made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kearns was in the midst of his legal troubles when Mergler saw him for the last time. In 1988, the year Mergler retired from the Case School of Engineering and was named an emeritus professor, many former students of the faculty being honored returned to Cleveland for the event, including Kearns. Mergler recalled that he looked like a "hollow shell" of his former self. The legal battles had taken an enormous toll.
"When I saw him, the first thought in my mind was, 'Was it worth all the trouble?,'" Mergler said. "He looked like a hollow shell, an old man with not much left in him. He was a very modest man, but he wasn't modest in his tenacity in proving that he was wronged and he wanted to correct that. He persisted and received his due. He lost everything – his wife, some of his children, and he'd had physical and emotional breakdowns. But through it all, he was always a gentleman."
Kearns' dissertation, "A Digital Compensator for Automatic Control Systems," which can be located in University Archives, was on research unrelated to his work on the windshield wipers.
The inventor died in 2005 of brain cancer complicated by Alzheimer's disease. He had six children.
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