Robert Kearns, an American engineer, was thoroughly fed up with windscreen wipers. His 1962 Ford Galaxie 500 convertible, like most cars of the era, had two-speed wipers; one setting was a fairly pedestrian but continual sweep, while the other was a flat-out mode designed for tackling downpours.
Problems arose, observed Kearns, if you were driving in light rain. In these kinds of conditions not much water would accumulate on the windscreen between wiper sweeps. The wipers would chatter and screech their way across the glass as a result, often smearing it. Besides exacerbating wear and tear on the wiper blades and mechanism itself, the repetitive motion of the wipers could also prove hypnotic - distracting to the driver from the road ahead.
What was needed was a system that would permit the wiper to linger in its parked position for a few moments before beginning its next sweep. This would allow enough water to build up on the screen to permit smooth and effective operation - and also give the driver's eyes and mind a break from the monotonous motion of the mechanism.
Kearns was well positioned to invent such a device. He had worked for an engineering firm when he was younger, served in the US Army as a corporal in various intelligence-related groups and later worked for several other specialist tool manufacturers. He had also graduated from the University of Detroit with a degree in mechanical engineering and went on to earn a masters degree in engineering mechanics.
While further studying for a PhD in engineering, Kearns set about developing a new wiper system in the basement of his Detroit home. Progress was slow, given the energy he was otherwise pouring into his degree, but - after countless experiments - Kearns finally settled on a design he was happy with.
Kearns wasn't the only one who had spotted the need for an intermittent system, though. A team of engineers at Trico, an American firm that specialised in wiper systems, had applied for a patent on an 'electric windshield cleaner' that featured 'intermittent operation' earlier in 1958. It was pneumatically operated and complicated, though - and other similar concepts, based on either electric or mechanical operation, were either far too involved or unreliable and unmarketable.
The genius of the system designed by Kearns was that it only featured a handful of common and inexpensive electronic components - including a single transistor, one capacitor and a variable resistor. These worked together to deliver a dwell period at the end of each wiper sweep and, thanks to the variable resistor, the delay between sweeps could be easily adjusted by the driver to suit the conditions. Kearns even envisioned an automatic rain-sensing mode, as well as a version that could automatically adjust the interval based on the drag experienced by the blades.
Because the system was affordable and simple, it could easily be mass produced and fitted to all manner of cars. For Kearns, the dream was to own a factory that would produce these systems and supply all manner of companies - and, with a functioning prototype of his 'windshield wiper system with intermittent operation' to hand, he began marketing it to automotive manufacturers.
Kearns had always been a fan of Ford so, with the system installed in his Galaxie, he arranged a demonstration in 1963. It transpired that the company itself had also been experimenting with intermittent systems but Ford's own setup - as well as a prototype supplied by Trico - was unreliable. Ford was intrigued by Kearns's concept and, after some significant endurance testing, announced it would begin using the intermittent wiper system in 1969.
Ford, in order to produce the system, set about working with Kearns so the details of his circuit could be fully understood and refined for production. Not long after, however, Ford ceased talks with Kearns and indicated that it no longer had any interest in the intermittent wiper system. Fortunately, by 1967, the patent on the circuit designed by Kearns had been granted and published - securing him the rights to his bespoke design and, hopefully, putting him in a profitable position.
It came as a shock and a surprise to Kearns when, in 1969, Ford about-faced and introduced the first electronic intermittent wiper system. General Motors soon followed, as did Chrysler, and before long the system was installed in millions of cars - and all were using systems based on the circuit designed by Kearns. Much to his further disappointment, in 1976, Kearns found that his invention had made it around the globe - as a Mercedes-Benz intermittent wiper system was also found to be using his circuit.
As his aspirations of being a major supplier crumbled, Kearns went to war with Ford. His 1978 suit against the company initially sought some $141 million in damages but Ford fought back, claiming there was nothing new about the design - because it was all based on existing components. Kearns justifiably argued otherwise, because it was the way in which the parts were combined that was the innovative component of his patent.
He started a case against Chrysler in 1982, too, and ultimately filed claims against a total of 26 manufacturers - including Honda, Nissan, Peugeot, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Isuzu. For Kearns, it wasn't about money - it was about rightful ownership of the idea and ensuring that the patent system did its job to protect and credit those innovating and bringing new ideas to market. He consequently pursued those involved relentlessly, battling the substantial legal teams of numerous major manufacturers.
Predictably, as the manufacturers had nothing but time and money on their hands, these cases were protracted. By 1990, the original damage claim against Ford had risen to $325 million - based on the fact that, between 1971 and 1988, the company had sold almost 21 million intermittent wiper systems. The profit was mooted to be in the region of $557 million; Ford tried to settle the case for $30 million but Kearns rejected the offer, as the company reputedly wouldn't give him the credit for the original design.
In late 1990, 12 years after he filed his first case against Ford, the jury finally ruled in his favour - stating that Ford had 'unintentionally' infringed on his patent. The payout was $10.2 million and, in 1992, Chrysler was also commanded to pay Kearns $11.3 million in damages. The company appealed but, in 1995, its protest was rejected and Chrysler had to pay out $18.7 million plus interest.
Drained of his energy, having done nothing but tackle the manufacturers for so long, Kearns failed to file the appropriate paperwork and meet the required court orders to continue the rest of his cases. The remaining lawsuits were subsequently dismissed in 1996 but, by this point, Kearns had spent much of the money he had been awarded on legal fees - and intermittent wipers were being used around the world, by countless manufacturers, in tens of millions of cars.
There were other hefty prices to pay; his wife left him during the course of all the legal battles, Kearns himself had suffered a nervous breakdown and all of his business partnerships had long evaporated in the background. The fight to get credit for his invention and prove the patent system worth its while had, pushed to its conclusion, consumed everything in his life.
Kearns later died of brain cancer, aged 77, on 9 February 2005. Despite the trials and tribulations, he still had a Ford parked outside his home when he died. Few today would be aware of the struggle that took place over his intermittent wiper design but, in 2008, the whole arduous affair was turned into a film called Flash of Genius - which, at the very least, showcased to a wider audience how one individual doggedly fought to protect innovators around the world.