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1927

Inventor who won suits against auto giants is born

Robert Kearns, who patented a design for a type of windshield wiper and later won multi-million dollar judgments against Chrysler and Ford for using his concept without permission, is born on March 10, 1927, in Gary, Indiana. Kearns’ invention, the intermittent windshield wiper, enabled wipers to move at timed intervals, rather than constantly swiping back and forth. Intermittent wipers aided drivers in light rain or mist and today are a standard feature of most cars. Kearns’ real-life David versus Goliath story about taking on the auto giants was made into a movie titled “Flash of Genius” that opened in 2008 and starred Greg Kinnear.

Kearns was raised near Detroit, Michigan, and later worked as a professor of engineering at Wayne State University. He first patented his wiper design in 1967 and tried to license his invention to various automakers but failed to make a deal with any of them. Then, in 1960, Ford debuted the first intermittent wiper; other car companies eventually followed suit. In the late 1970s, Kearns sued Ford for patent infringement and went on to take legal action against more than two dozen other automakers.

The ensuing legal battles lasted more than a decade and consumed Kearns, who often acted as his own attorney. Kearns’ quest cost him his marriage and also may have contributed to a nervous breakdown he suffered. In 1990, a jury ruled that Ford was guilty of non-deliberate patent infringement and Kearns was later awarded some $10 million. He also went on to win a $20 million judgment against Chrsyler. Kearns’ lawsuits against other automakers were dismissed for technical reasons.

Kearns died at the age of 77 from cancer on February 9, 2005, in Maryland.

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