Friday, September 26, 2008


Saw the trailer for a new movie coming out in October: Flash of Genius. A story based on the guy who invented intermittent windshield wipers might not sound riveting, but I like Greg Kinnear and the clips totally captured my attention.

You know my next stop was Google, don't you?

The trailers make it look like a feel-good story. I hope they didn't make a feel-good story out of it. Even though I love stories where the little guy (Robert Kearns) triumphs over the giant (the auto industry), Dr. Kearns did not exactly triumph. I read a dozen accounts of his life, including his obit, and this guy did not win, despite multi-million dollar judgments against Ford and Chrysler.

Here's the Reader's Digest version: Kearns invented a motor for intermittent windshield wipers and took his invention to Ford. (He patented his invention in 1967.) Ford worked with him quite a while, then dropped him cold. In 1969, Ford brought out a new Mustang with...intermittent wipers.

Kearns was...shall we say...extremely disappointed but didn't think there was anything he could do. In 1978, his son brought home a wiper motor from Mercedes. He took it apart, discovered they were using his invention, and had a nervous breakdown. Seriously--a several-weeks-in-the-mental-hospital nervous breakdown.

When he got out of the hospital, he filed suit against Ford. He spent almost every spare moment fighting for, practically speaking,the rest of his life.

Kearns wanted the right to manufacture his invention. He was offered huge sums of money to drop the litigation--$30 million from Ford at one point. He wouldn't take the money because he wanted something else: to manufacture his invention and supply it to the auto industry.

Within two years, he'd lost his job as a college professor and his wife had divorced him, but he fought on. In the early 90s, he won judgments against Ford and Chrysler, but had spent almost as much in legal fees as he ever collected. He died in a nursing home. Brain cancer complicated by Alzheimer's.

It's easy to see Kearns as David, fighting the good fight against the Goliath car industry. He believed he was fighting not just for himself, but for all small inventors. On some levels, it sounds like a righteous fight.

From everything I've read, including interviews of the son who helped him with the litigation, the man sacrificed his life in search of the only outcome he would accept. He would not take any of the positive outcomes offered him because they didn't fit the picture he'd created in his head.

In very different ways and on a very different scale, I've done the exact same thing. I'll bet some of you have, too.

It's easy to develop tunnel vision when working toward a goal. It's easy to lose sight of everything around you except whatever exists within that tunnel. It's easy to refuse very good outcomes because they're not the outcome.

I'm going to try to give this up. And I'm going to remember Robert Kearns. Here's to you, sir. Traveling mercies.


Carrie Wilson Link said...

Lots to chew on - thanks!

Dennis Kearns said...

Flash of Genius, is a story about a guy who went to school and learned about the american dream, worked and taught others.

Then was called and tested, to stand up as he had taught or sit down and fade away.

Bob Kearns did not want to get relegated on a park bench, no matter how many millions he could spend on that bench.

Bob stood up for principle no matter how many or how big the adversaries.

Maybe the Jesuit training, maybe the U S Marine training, maybe the OSS training or maybe he just thought it was right.

Deb said...

Interesting juxtaposition - this piece with the quote from I Am Legend. Crazy? Legend? The above response makes me think that Mr. Kearns got what he wanted in a way. He did not have to accept anything other than what he thought was right. I wonder if he would say it was worth the cost.

Stacy said...

Hmm, how they got there-legend or genius or crazy. it's all the same really isn't it? So- now that you've gotten the skinny on this, how about Rudolph Diesel? The inventor of the diesel engine? There is an interesting conspiracy inventor story going on there. I never researched it though. Perhaps you? I have homework, yet I procrastinate with you and your words. Imagine