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Who Invented the Intermittent Windshield Wiper?

Windshield wipers have both a low and a high-speed setting. On either of these two settings, the motor runs continuously. In the intermittent setting, the wipers momentarily stop in between each wipe. But did you ever wonder who invented it? 

Robert Kearns, a mechanical engineer, developed the intermittent windshield wiper. Shortly after, Ford and Chrysler started using his invention without giving him credit. Kearns sued the companies for millions of dollars. 

How Did Robert Kearns Invent the Intermittent Windshield Wiper? 

Robert William Kearns, a mechanical engineer, went to Ontario, Canada, with his wife Phyllis for their honeymoon. At an event, a cork of a newly opened champagne bottle flew across the room and hit Kearns on the left eye. His eye was damaged due to the impact and did not function normally. 

While he was recovering from the incident, Kearns started to ponder on the mechanics of the eye, specifically the eyelid. He hypothesized that the eyelid doesn’t blink at a predetermined rate. It is only activated if the eye becomes dry or when a foreign object intrudes. He then realized that the windshield wiper should act like an eyelid, changing its wiping rate depending on the amount of rain.

Kearns built a laboratory in his basement. He developed and refined his concept of the intermittent windshield wiper by testing it on dashboards of old cars he purchased. By 1963, the engineer retrofitted his prototype onto a Ford Galaxie convertible.

He then brought the car to the Ford factory in Dearborn, Michigan, with the intention to introduce his invention and possibly partner with the company. His initial meeting with Ford managers proved successful as he was called for a second meeting, but the manufacturer’s engineers were present this time.

Ford disclosed that they were working on their own version of the intermittent windshield wiper, which they intended to be part of Ford’s Mercury line. Kearns and Ford’s engineers often met to discuss the concept, where Kearns shared the inner workings of his prototype. (Source: Interesting Engineering)

Troubles with Big Car Companies

After two years, Ford stopped communicating with Kearns. In 1969, Ford released their first electronic intermittent windshield wiper. On the other hand, Kearns was working for the US National Bureau of Standards.

In 1976, Kearn’s son obtained an intermittent wiper control box Mercedes-Benz used. Upon further examination, they realized that it was the exact copy of Kearn’s prototype. He then reviewed the patent filings of different automobile companies only to discover that all of them copied his design. Kearns was livid. These big manufacturers stole his idea. Good thing he had the original design patented. 

He set out and filed lawsuits against these manufacturers in 1977. The lawsuits took a toll on Kearns’ personal life and health. His wife left him, and he suffered from a nervous breakdown that landed him in the hospital. But he stood his ground and kept fighting. 

Finally, in 1990, all his hard work paid off. Ford Motor Company agreed to settle a hefty amount of $10.2 million with Kearns. Two years later, Chrysler lost their case and settled for $30 million. Kearns passed in 2005 due to brain cancer but is remembered as the little guy who fought back against big corporations and won. (Source: Interesting Engineering)

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