Ford Motor Co. offered Bob Kearns $30 million earlier this year to just go away. He turned the money down cold. When Ford came back with another offer, he wouldn't even listen. And even before a federal court in Detroit decided last week to award Kearns $5.2 million in the patent infringement lawsuit he had filed against Ford, the 63-year-old Gaithersburg inventor had walked out of the courthouse in protest.
"Do you know anybody else who would turn their back on $30 million?" asks Kearns's former wife, Phyllis Kearns. "No, he's in it for the principle. To the death."
During the past two decades, the soft-spoken, white-haired engineer has been locked in a battle with the automaker over the rights to an intermittent windshield wiper device he says he invented and Ford stole from him. Kearns wants nothing less than to be the exclusive supplier of intermittent windshield wiper systems to Ford and other automakers -- a business he says could be worth as much as $3 billion a year. His crusade has exasperated legions of lawyers and judges and run up millions of dollars in legal fees and debts. Along the way it has undone the inventor's marriage, and once pushed him to a nervous breakdown.
What drives him, he says with confidence, is a desire to improve the lot of inventors everywhere -- the tinkerers like himself who spend virtually every minute of their spare time in garages or basements in the hopes of perfecting a gadget that will make them a fortune. On their behalf, Kearns wants U.S. patent law changed so that similar disputes over inventions don't spend so much time in court that their 17-year patents expire, leaving embattled inventors without the rights to their creations.
His own battle has gone on for so long that the basic patents on his invention, issued in the mid-1960s, expired several years ago, and other, related patents are on the verge of running out.
Kearns doesn't hide his bitterness: "Ford -- without moving, just the passage of time -- will take my life's work. Free."
To make his point, Kearns has hectored Ford and other automakers in court, spent hundreds of hours of his own time in law libraries looking up cases and preparing motions, and gone through four sets of lawyers -- with the latest apparently about to resign. His quest, he admits, has all but consumed him.
"I don't think there's any obsession," Kearns says. "I think there's a determination. ... You've got to be after more than money."
The Goal of a New Machine Bob Kearns's fight against Ford could be seen as another chapter in the popular mythology about eccentric tinkerers who come up with better mousetraps but get squashed by rapacious Big Business. His battle against the auto industry also echoes that of Preston Tucker, the maverick who tried to take on the Big Three automakers with a radically innovative car design, only to be driven to ruin by what he saw as a conspiracy between the corporations and courts.
Kearns demurs. "There's a fundamental difference between Tucker and myself," he says. "Tucker was a competitor. But all I ever wanted to do was serve the automotive industry."
Indeed, the Detroit native's original vision was to become a major supplier to the auto industry, and Ford first heard of Kearns's invention when he offered to sell it to the company.
It was 1963, and the perfection of a good system for intermittent windshield wipers had become a Holy Grail of sorts to the auto industry, which was eager to offer it to option-crazy car buyers. Some crude vacuum-powered devices were available to control wiper speed, but most experts thought that an electronic system held the most promise.
Kearns, then a professor at Wayne State University in Michigan, was one of those working on the problem. A part-time inventor who already held a patent on a device used in the inertial guidance system of missiles, Kearns was spurred in his quest for an intermittent wiper control system by that midwife of invention, a flash of inspiration.
At his wedding a few years earlier, he had been hit in the eye by a popping champagne cork and virtually blinded. That led him to think about the mechanics of blinking eyes, and, through an unusual leap, to visions of windshield wipers that would cope with light, spattering rain when continuous wiper motion is squeakily unnecessary.
"I sort of think thoughts that other people don't think of," he says.
Kearns, a mechanical engineer since high school, spent countless hours working on the idea. He tested the wiper inside a fishbowl filled with a gooey oil and sawdust mixture to measure its ability to keep functioning under the most adverse conditions. He drafted his six kids to monitor the unusual test, and turned his wife into a laboratory assistant.
"I'd watch the oscilloscope and he'd be over adjusting" the controls on the intermittent wipers, Phyllis Kearns recalls. "That was our Saturday night entertainment -- and Friday night and Thursday night. We lived with it."
Kearns solved the problem with a relatively simple control system based on a circuit consisting of a switch, a capacitor, a variable resistor and a transistor. He applied for a patent, bolted the small red box containing the device to his 1962 Ford Galaxie, and on Oct. 22, 1963 -- Kearns has an engineer's precision about dates and other fine points -- drove over to Ford to see if the company was interested in buying his invention.
A group of disbelieving Ford engineers swarmed over the car, fascinated, and invited Kearns back for more tests. At one point, convinced that he was controlling the device through a switch hidden in his pocket, the engineers threw Kearns out of the room to try it for themselves. But there was no magic. Kearns had perfected a device that a quarter of a century later is standard equipment on most automobiles sold in the United States.
A Patent Falsehood Kearns, who holds 39 patents in all, eventually received 19 of them on various aspects and improvements of his intermittent wiper control. Each one is an elaborate document, secured by a blue ribbon and red seal, containing detailed drawings and descriptions. Like other inventors, he assumed the patents would give him 17 years of exclusivity over his invention, providing time to build a business to manufacture the devices without competition from copycats.
But Ford and other automakers, he charges, ignored his patents. After negotiations to license his wiper control fell through in the late 1960s, he says, they simply ripped off his design.
"The judge says I'm not allowed to use the word 'illegal,' " he says of Ford's actions. "But I can use the word 'unlawful.' ... Their conduct is simply unlawful."
Ford sees it differently. The company has maintained that Kearns's innovation represented merely an incremental improvement on technology that Ford and others were already developing on their own. "I think his view of his contribution to automotive technology and to consumers is distorted, and that's affected the way he has approached this thing," says Malcolm Wheeler, an attorney who represents Ford in the patent suit.
Kearns protested to the company by letter, holding out hope that he could negotiate a contract to manufacture the wiper controls and sell them to Ford for $4.20 apiece. The factory, he envisioned, would be in Gaithersburg, where he moved in 1971 after taking a job at the National Bureau of Standards.
But Ford wasn't interested in a deal, and Kearns became increasingly frustrated that his invention was showing up on cars without credit or compensation. "It just devastated him, and then preyed on him and eventually obsessed him," his ex-wife says.
By 1976, his disappointment and frustration was taking a heavy toll. His son had purchased a Mercedes equipped with intermittent windshield wipers. Kearns, the inveterate engineer, was curious about how the Germans had built their device. Disassembling the control, he was shocked to discover it was virtually identical to his design. On the spot, he suffered a nervous breakdown.
"I simply got up from my desk, and I never went back to work," he says. "I was simply crushed."
Kearns boarded a Greyhound bus -- "to Australia," he says matter-of-factly. He had delusions that he was being attacked by poison gas. He believed he had been chosen by Richard Nixon to develop an electric car. After wandering through several states, he was picked up by police, returned to Maryland and hospitalized before entering regular therapy.
Kearns also embarked on another form of therapy. He decided to press his case in court against those he believed had wronged him. "You have a need to try to straighten out the problems in your life," he says.
He filed suit against Ford, Mercedes and 19 other automakers in 1978, alleging that they had infringed on his patents for intermittent windshield wiper controls. "He felt that he needed to be vindicated," says Phyllis Kearns, who left him two years later (they were divorced last year). "So he started on his quest, and nobody but he could have carried through with it all this time."
Unsettled Out of Court Kearns has never been very interested in settling the case -- at least not on the automakers' terms. "Everybody would ask me ... 'Is Ford going to settle?' " he says, obviously relishing the irony of the situation. "Nobody seemed to understand that it's a two-way street, and that I had the other half of the coin as to whether I was going to settle."
Kearns's obstinate attitude frustrated his lawyers. They have repeatedly urged him to settle and have complained to courts that he wouldn't take their advice. This may explain why four different law firms have handled Kearns's case during the past 12 years.
Although he claims he either fired them or parted with them amicably, court records indicate that in most cases the lawyers dropped him as a client because of his recalcitrance or for other, stranger reasons. The strangest, perhaps, was an offer by the inventor's oldest son, Dennis, a private investigator, to threaten Ford negotiators with a gun.
As the suits wore on, the 17-year terms on Kearns's patents began to expire, fundamentally changing his legal position. As long as the patents remained in effect, he could win an injunction against the auto companies to stop them from producing the disputed parts, giving him negotiating leverage for a possible manufacturing contract or licensing arrangement. However, with the expiration of the patents, all that Kearns could hope for was a monetary award.
The suit against Ford, the first of his cases to be heard, did not come to trial until early this year, five years after the first of his patents on intermittent wipers had run out.
"My first patent expired in November of 1984 and my sixth one in June of 1988," he says, a catch in his voice, as if talking about the death of a loved one. "Ford has infringed the entire 17 years of my patents. I have not had one day of this exclusive time." He claims Ford made $577 million in profit off his work, a figure Ford and most outside experts say is greatly inflated.
Still, Kearns won some measure of vindication in the Ford case. In January, a Detroit jury ruled that Kearns's patents were valid -- and thus, by terms of an earlier agreement between Ford and Kearns, that the automaker had infringed on his patent. Ford quickly offered to settle the case for $30 million, but Kearns, who had sued for $300 million, wasn't interested.
"He wouldn't even discuss any kind of a monetary settlement," said Wheeler, Ford's attorney. "My understanding of his position was that he wanted a 100 percent supply requirements contract, and that's all he would settle for."
Because of opposition from the judge in the case, Avern Cohn of the U.S. District Court in Detroit, it has been unlikely that Kearns would collect any more than Ford was offering once damages were decided. Cohn said he did not want to see Kearns receive a "gigantic windfall" from Ford.
Cohn declines to comment on Kearns's case, but one expert agrees with Kearns that the judge seemed biased against the inventor. "If Kearns was wronged, it was by the judge taking a very hostile attitude," said Harold C. Wegner, a Washington patent attorney.
The first jury that met to decide damages in the case deadlocked and was dismissed by Cohn. While selection of a second jury was underway last month, Kearns's frustration and pride reached a boiling point, and he walked out of the courtroom.
"If I sat there, I would have legitimized the process, is what I saw in my mind. It didn't reflect the truth," Kearns says. "My fate was already sealed. Judge Cohn took care of that."
So, "I left. I definitely left," he says.
Pressing the Suit The jury decided last week that Ford owed Kearns just 30 cents for every wiper control it had manufactured between 1972 and 1988 -- a total of $5.2 million, which may almost triple with the interest and legal fees that Ford was ordered to pay.
But when the damage award was announced, Kearns was nowhere to be found. He had left Detroit two weeks before the decision with $40 in his pocket. He visited friends in Ohio, then returned to Maryland and pitched a tent at Little Bennett Regional Park in Clarksburg. For a couple of weeks, even his family wasn't sure where he was.
"I wanted to think," he says. "I wanted to do something constructive."
Hastened by rain and the theft of his cooking stove, early this week he left his campground exile -- vowing to continue his fight. If he can afford it, Kearns says, he plans to appeal the damage award, a process that likely will take several years. He hopes eventually to go to trial, again before Judge Cohn, on his suits against the other automakers.
He may have to do it with still another set of attorneys. Kearns said his current law firm, Arnold, White and Durkee of Houston, has indicated that it wants to be removed from the case. His attorneys at Arnold, White did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Meanwhile, Kearns is stepping up his efforts to win reforms in patent law that would protect inventors who become embroiled in legal disputes over the validity of their patents.
In any event, Bob Kearns will fight on, and this week has already spoken to Commerce Department officials about his ideas for patent-law reform. Because the damage award will be tied up in the appeal process, he will continue to live on disability benefits resulting from his breakdown. He says he's never made a penny in royalties from any of his patents, and he's now deeply in debt. He fears he will soon lose his house, and he says he hasn't even been able to afford new clothes in years.
"This suit goes back many years," he says, referring not to his legal battle but to his tatty green jacket. "It's been very tough."
The Jesuit priests who taught him at the University of Detroit, he says, "educated more than an engineer. To me, they developed a whole man. I've tried to be that." His voice cracks, his eyes glisten. After a pause, he continues quietly: "It's hard. I guess I just pray."
Whatever happens, Kearns says, he won't accept the advice he hears all the time.
"I have many people that tell me, Bob, why don't you quit this quest and invent something else?" he says.
"My answer is, you've got to be a fool to get a patent twice. If you don't learn your lesson the first time through, it's pretty dumb to do it twice."