Most inventors will
tell you that it's very hard to introduce a new invention to the
automotive industry; Kearns found out the hard way. There are two
common ways for an inventor to launch a new invention onto the
market: You can license it to an existing company or manufacture and
sell the item yourself.
In an eerie
coincidence, as noted in an Invention Mysteries story last month,
first windshield wipers were invented in 1903, exactly 100 years
ago, by Mary Anderson of Alabama during a trip to New York.
For a product like
intermittent windshield wipers, there were several reasons why it
made more sense to try to license it to an existing company such as
Ford, General Motors or Chrysler. First, these companies already
have worldwide distribution established; second, they can install
the wipers as standard equipment; and, third, it would be nearly
impossible for an inventor to achieve critical mass selling the
wipers himself. Unfortunately, any of the Big Three automakers could
design their own version of intermittent windshield wipers by
designing around Kearns' original patent -- and put him out of
According to David
Lindsey's book, "House of Invention," when Kearns met with
representatives from Ford to demonstrate his wipers, he was told
that all he needed to do was prove that they met industry standards.
He did this in 1964, but rather than immediately license his wipers,
Ford offered Kearns a job instead, which he gladly accepted.
Kearns was laid off
just five months later, though, and he soon noticed that his
intermittent wipers began appearing on Ford cars, even though he did
not license them to Ford. Kearns still held the patent rights. It's
one thing to have a company steal your idea, but imagine what it
must feel like to have AN ENTIRE INDUSTRY steal your idea! That's
what happened to Kearns, as General Motors, Chrysler, Saab, Volvo,
Honda and Rolls-Royce all followed Ford's lead in stealing Kearns'
Kearns decided to
fight them in court, initially serving as his own lawyer even though
he had no legal background. Years of legal battles followed, and
Kearns eventually won court settlements of $10.2 million from Ford
and $11.5 from Chrysler. Today, nearly all new cars sold worldwide
have intermittent windshield wipers. So this story turned out just
fine for Kearns, right?
[to top of
second column in this article]
The legal battles
consumed nearly 30 years of his life. Kearns' daughter Kathy once
said, "The lawsuit is all we've ever known." The inventor's wife,
after having finally lost her patience, left him. Kearns filed
additional lawsuits against 19 foreign automakers but lost, and his
suit against General Motors was thrown out. Altogether, he spent
nearly $8 million dollars in legal fees.
We now know that
inventor Robert Kearns won the battle, but only he and his family
can decide who won the war. His fight was more about inventors'
rights than it was about money. It was about principle, as evidenced
by the fact that he had turned down an earlier settlement offer of
$30 million from Ford. Kearns' intermittent windshield wipers have
benefited car owners worldwide, even though the majority of the
sales do not result in a royalty to Kearns.
Kearns wasn't the
first inventor who invented a revolutionary new automotive product
and didn't see instant rewards. You see, Mary Anderson, who invented
the precursor to Kearns' invention, the windshield wiper, in 1903,
never profited from her invention even though it had become standard
equipment on American cars by 1913. Her story was quite different,
though, as it didn't involve lawsuits.
Some companies see infringement lawsuits
as merely a cost of doing business, but in this case, the automakers
nearly ruined an inventor's life in the process.
Paul Niemann is a contributing author to
Inventors' Digest magazine, and he also runs
MarketLaunchers.com, helping people in the marketing of their
new product ideas. He can be reached at
column in LDN:
was quite a year for this 'mother of invention'"