One Man against the Entire Car Industry


This post is part of Issue#08: Against The Odds

How tough would it be to drive a car in the rain without windshield wipers?

It was Robert Kearns, an American inventor, who designed the first model of the intermittent wipers that allowed the driver to adjust the speed between each wipe. But instead of getting fame & money, Kearns died fighting a legal battle against all the car companies.

Designing an intermittent wiper

Kearns came up with his design for the wiper in 1963. He believed that wipers should work like eyelids – blinking once in a while, not continuously. To do this, he used a transistor, capacitor and a resistor. The resistor controlled the voltage sent to the capacitor. When the capacitor had a certain level of voltage, it activated the transistor that turned on the wipers. After one wipe, the voltage reduced turning off the transistor and taking the wiper back to its original position till the capacitor recharged.

Fighting against Ford

Henry Ford once said “I believe absolutely in free competition and in abolishing patents”. But Kearns wanted a patent and filed it with the help of a businessman named David Tann. He then presented his model to the Ford engineers. They were impressed and promised him a contract provided he shared the details of the design. After 5 months, Kearns was fired. In 1969, Ford used the same design in their Mercury line of cars. By 1977, all major companies had started using it.

Feeling cheated, Kearns filed a lawsuit against Ford in 1978. Ford later agreed to pay $10.2 million. “I don’t think the goal was the magnitude of the money,” Kearns said when the Ford case ended. He said his role “was to defend the patent system.” All that he had wanted was the freedom to sell his own wipers. He continued to file lawsuits against companies till his death in 2005.

Question: Answer in Comments

Points at Stake: +2

What 2008 Hollywood movie is based on the life of Robert Kearns? The title of the movie is a patent law term (no longer in existence) that held that all inventions must come as a moment of inspiration.

Did You Know?

The US Patent System was created by Thomas Jefferson in 1793. The first patent was granted to Samuel Hopkins for a new way of making Potash.


This is Ford’s side of the story. To be fair, they acknowledge Kearns and many other people who played a part in the invention of the intermittent wiper.