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Accomplished, Frustrated Inventor Dies

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page B01

At long last, Robert Kearns's battles with the world's automotive giants have come to an end. Kearns, who died Feb. 9, devoted decades of his life to fighting Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Corp. and other carmakers in court, trying to gain the credit he thought he deserved as the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper.

From a basement in Detroit, where he devised his invention, to Gaithersburg, where he moved in the 1970s, Kearns carried his lonely fight all the way to the Supreme Court, one man against the might of the industrial world and a patent system he believed had let him down.

Robert Kearns fought for years to be credited as inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. (The Washington Post)

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By the time he died at 77 at Copper Ridge nursing home in Sykesville, Md., of brain cancer complicated by Alzheimer's disease, Kearns had gained some vindication in the form of $30 million in settlements from Ford and Chrysler, but he never got what he had sought from the beginning.

"I need the money, but that's not what this is about," he told Regardie's magazine in 1990. "I've spent a lifetime on this. This case isn't just a trial. It's about the meaning of Bob Kearns's life."

All he wanted, he often said, was the chance to run a factory with his six children and build his wiper motors, along with a later invention for a windshield wiper that was activated automatically by rainfall. In the end, his courtroom battles cost him his job, his marriage and, at times, his mental health.

Kearns, who had a doctorate in engineering from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and had taught engineering for 11 years at Wayne State University in Detroit, was no weekend tinkerer. A native of Gary, Ind., he grew up near the giant Ford plant in River Rouge, Mich., and always thought of the auto company as a place that welcomed someone with ingenuity.

He got his idea on his wedding night in 1953, when a champagne cork struck him in the left eye, which eventually became blind. The blinking of his eye led him to wonder if he could make windshield wipers that worked the same way -- that would move at intervals instead of in a constant back-and-forth motion.

After years of experiments at home and on his cars -- "If it ever rained," his former wife, Phyllis Hall, recalled yesterday, "I had to drop everything and go out with him in the car" -- Kearns believed his invention was ready.

He applied for patents, mounted his wipers on his 1962 Ford Galaxie and drove to Ford's headquarters. Engineers swarmed over his car, at one point sending him out of the workroom, convinced he was activating the wipers with a button in his pocket.

Ford's engineers had been experimenting with vacuum-operated wipers, but Kearns was the first to invent an intermittent wiper with an electric motor. After a while, however, Ford stopped answering his calls, and Kearns was left on his own.

In 1967, he received the first of more than 30 patents for his wipers. In 1969, Ford came out with the first intermittent wiper system in the United States, followed within a few years by the other major manufacturers.

After working as Detroit's commissioner of buildings and safety engineering, Kearns moved to Gaithersburg in 1971 to become principal investigator for highway skid resistance at the old National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

In 1976, Kearns's son bought an electric circuit for a Mercedes-Benz intermittent wiper, which Kearns took apart, only to discover it was almost identical to what he'd invented. He had a nervous breakdown soon after.

He boarded a bus, with delusions of riding to Australia and being commissioned by former President Richard M. Nixon to build an electric car. Police picked him up in Tennessee, and his family checked him into the psychiatric ward at Montgomery General Hospital. When he came out after a few weeks, his red hair had turned white.

Earlier in life, Kearns had been a high school cross-country star, an outstanding violinist and a teenage intelligence officer in World War II. But from 1976, his sole focus in life was to battle the auto giants and reclaim his invention.

Kearns filed suit against Ford for patent infringement in 1978, seeking $141 million in damages (a figure eventually raised to $325 million). In all, he filed lawsuits against 26 car manufacturers and other companies.

Kearns supported himself with disability pay after his breakdown and by trading in foreign currencies.

By the early 1980s, his wife had had enough.

"It had become an obsession," recalled Hall, who lives in Arizona. "I told him, 'I can't stand this life.' He said, 'This is my life.' "

When their divorce was granted in 1989, Kearns was in the midst of his court case against Ford.

After 12 years of litigation, Ford finally offered to pay Kearns millions of dollars to settle the case. His attorney at the time, William Durkee of Houston, estimated Kearns could have received at least $50 million from Ford and comparable amounts from other carmakers.

Kearns refused the offer.

"He wanted to be a manufacturer and supply that system to the automotive industry," said Richard L. Aitken, a Washington patent lawyer who had worked with Kearns since the 1960s. "That was the most important thing to him."

In July 1990, a federal jury ruled that Ford had unintentionally infringed on Kearns's patent and awarded him $10.2 million.

Back in Montgomery County, Kearns was fighting a different kind of court battle, this time with his former wife. On July 25, 1990, he was sentenced to 120 days in jail for nonpayment of $700 in alimony and for refusing to vacate his Gaithersburg house. He served 35 days before paying up and leaving the house -- and agreeing to pay his wife 10 percent of anything he might win from the automakers.

After the Ford settlement, Kearns turned his sights on Chrysler. In December 1991, a federal jury ruled that Chrysler had infringed unfairly on his patent. Firing his law firm a week before the damage phase of the trial, Kearns argued his case and was awarded more than $20 million.

Chrysler appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Kearns was entitled to the money but rejected his argument that Chrysler should be prohibited from using his design.

Having gone through five law firms, an exhausted Kearns was unable to manage his multiple lawsuits on his own. When he missed deadlines for filing papers in his cases against General Motors Corp. and German and Japanese auto companies, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, who presided over all of Kearns's trials in Detroit, dismissed the remaining cases.

By then, Kearns's patents had expired, having passed the 17-year window of ownership then in effect. He bought a house on the Wye River, near Queenstown on the Eastern Shore, and entered an uneasy retirement. From time to time, he would call his children and his attorney and talk about reclaiming his patents.

Survivors include six children, Dennis Kearns of Keego Harbor, Mich., Timothy Kearns of Oxford, Md., Patrick Kearns of Ypsilanti, Mich., Kathleen Corsetty of Rockville, Maureen Kearns of Detroit and Bob Kearns of Germantown; a brother; and seven grandchildren.

In his final years, he drove around in two aging vehicles: a 1978 Ford pickup and a 1965 Chrysler. Neither had intermittent wipers.

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