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Great Inventors #1: Robert Kearns

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MU Patents begins a new series in which we highlight our greatest inventors of all time. We will provide information on the inventors, their inventions that made them great and even a breakdown of how the inventions function, or what makes the invention novel.

To kick off the Great Inventors series, we’re starting with Robert Kearns, who invented the intermittent wiper, (better known to us car owners as an important part of the modern windshield wipers). His invention was stated as “useful in rain or mist to reduce the wiping frequency,” for which he filed a patent in 1964.

He tried to license it to the Big Three automakers, Ford, Chrysler and GM, but was rebuffed. However, the automakers began to offer intermittent wiper systems starting in 1969, without paying any royalties to Robert.

According to the claims, the wiper motor is deenergized by a control unit near the end of each wiping cycle for a predetermined dwell period. The dwell period is determined by a capacitative timer, and a switch can adjust the capacitative timing to adjust the dwell period.

Robert sued Ford and Chrysler, and received $10.2-million from Ford and approximately $30-million from Chrysler. While Robert had an issued patent, the auto industry argued that it was obvious and therefore invalid, since it didn’t have any new components over traditional wiper controls. However, the Courts supported Kearns, saying “substantially every invention is for such a ‘combination’: that is to say, it consists of former elements in a new assemblage.”

Kearns died in 2005, however the story of Kearns’ invention and subsequent battle with the Big Three is memorialized in the 2008 film Flash of Genius starring popular actors Greg Kinnear and Lauren Graham.

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