Robert William Kearns PhD (March 10, 1927 – February 9, 2005) was an American engineer, educator and inventor who invented the intermittent windshield wiper systems used on most automobiles from 1969 to the present. His first patent for the invention was filed on December 1, 1964.
Kearns won one of the best known patent infringement cases against Ford Motor Company (1978–1990) and a case against Chrysler Corporation (1982–1992). Having invented and patented the intermittent windshield wiper mechanism, which was useful in light rain or mist, he tried to interest the "Big Three" auto makers in licensing the technology. Each rejected his proposal, yet began to install electronic intermittent wipers based on Kearns design in their cars, beginning in 1969.
He earned a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Detroit Mercy, a masters degree in engineering mechanics from Wayne State University and a doctorate from Case Western Reserve University.
Kearns claimed that the inspiration for his invention stems from an incident on his wedding night in 1953, when an errant champagne cork shot into his left eye, leaving him legally blind in that eye. Nearly a decade later in 1963, 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 blinks every few seconds, rather than continuously, presenting the idea to Ford. Ford representatives liked the idea wanting to rush it into at least one of their next model year's vehicles but later abandoned plans after Kearns had begun setting up manufacturing facilities for the invention.
When Ford introduced the feature in 1969, Kearns challenged the automaker, refusing offers of a settlement insisting that the case be heard in court, acting as his own lawyer.
After winning a $10.1 million judgment from Ford, Kearns mostly acted as his own attorney in the subsequent suit against Chrysler, even questioning witnesses on the stand. The Chrysler verdict was decided in Kearns's favor in 1992. Chrysler was ordered to pay Kearns US$18.7 million with interest. Chrysler appealed the court decision, but the Federal Circuit let the judgment stand. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case. By 1995, after spending over US$ 10 million in legal fees, Kearns received approximately US$ 30 million in compensation for Chrysler's patent infringement.
Chrysler was represented by Harness Dickey and Pierce, one of the first firms Kearns went to when he contemplated suing Ford in the late 1970s. Indeed, according to his son Dennis Kearns, Kearns wanted Harness Dickey removed for conflict of interest, but was unable to convince his attorneys to make a motion to remove Harness Dickey. He then decided to manage the Chrysler litigation on his own with his family.
Kearns filed lawsuits against manufacturers (and some dealers) of Ford, Porsche, Volkswagen, Ferrari, Volvo, Alfa Romeo, Lotus, Isuzu, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, Renault, Rolls Royce Motors, Saab, Toyota, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz as well as parts manufacturers such as United Technologies, and Bosch. Through decades of litigation Kearns was dropped by three law firms and continued to serve as his own attorney. Several cases were dismissed after Kearns missed deadlines in other filing papers.
The legal argument that the auto industry posed in defense was that an invention is supposed to meet certain standards of originality and novelty. One of these is that it be "non-obvious". Ford claimed that the patent was invalid because Kearns' intermittent windshield wiper system had no new components. Kearns noted that his invention was a novel and non-obvious combination of parts. Kearns' position found unequivocal support in precedent from the U.S. Court of Appeals and from the Supreme Court of the United States. See, e.g., Reiner v. I. Leon Co., 285 F.2d 501, 503 (2d Cir. 1960) ("It is idle to say that combinations of old elements cannot be inventions; substantially every invention is for such a 'combination': that is to say, it consists of former elements in a new assemblage.") (Hand., J.) (cited with approval in KSR Int'l Co. v. Teleflex, Inc., 550 U.S. 398 (2007)).
Kearns and his family moved to Montgomery Village, Maryland in 1971 where he worked for the National Bureau of Standards creating a standard for measuring skid resistance on roadways. His youngest son, 14 at the time and too young to be served court papers, answered the family's door when visitors arrived. In 1976, the intermittent wiper feature appeared on a Mercedes auto, and Kearns soon suffered a mental breakdown. After winning the Ford and Chrysler cases, Kearns moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore.
In the late 1990s, he served on the board of directors of the Veterans of the Office of Strategic Services and the General William J. Donovan Memorial Fund.
On February 9, 2005, Kearns died of brain cancer complicated by Alzheimer's disease in Baltimore, Maryland. The story of his invention and the lawsuit against Ford forms the basis of the 2008 film, Flash of Genius. Kearns and his wife Phyllis were divorced though several family members attended the movie's premiere. According to the film, Phyllis left Robert due to the stress of the court case. They had two daughters, four sons, and, at the time of his death, seven grandchildren.
A 1990 suit against Ford Motor Company sought $395 million in damages (the final award was $10.2 million).