On a rainy day in 1962, Robert Kearns “had a stroke of genius”, says Zachary Crockett in The Hustle. Back then, windscreen wipers had only two speed settings; Kearns thought it would be better if drivers could control both the speed and frequency of the swipes. The mechanical engineer built a prototype and Ford promptly offered him an employment contract. But five months later the company sacked him and stole his idea – setting the stage for “one of history’s great David vs Goliath lawsuits”.
After Ford introduced its revolutionary wipers in 1969, Kearns “had to spend two weeks in a psychiatric ward”. He recovered, and in 1978 filed a patent infringement lawsuit seeking $350m – $50 for every car sold with his wiper. The carmaker stalled, expecting Kearns to run out of time or money. It underestimated him. Kearns slept in his office and got his children to “pore over documents”. His wife filed for divorce. When Ford eventually offered him a $30m settlement, he refused – he wanted his day in court.
That day came in January 1990, when Kearns was in his sixties. The court ruled in his favour, ordering Ford to pay him $10.2m. But the inventor remained furious. He sued Chrysler for the same infringement – winning $18.7m – and launched unsuccessful actions against 18 other automakers. Kearns died in 2005, aged 77, never having gained control over his creation. But today he is regarded by many inventors as a hero for “waging a war against the corporate world’s ‘steal now, pay later’ ethos”.
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