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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Inventor's son writes in to Invention Mysteries          By Paul Niemann

[MAY 18, 2006]  I received an e-mail last month from a man named Dennis Kearns. He had read the story that I wrote about his dad a while back

His dad was Robert Kearns, and he invented intermittent windshield wipers in 1964. He then spent the next 22 years of his life battling the big automakers in one infringement battle after another. Robert Kearns had fought these battles on the merit of principle rather than for money, as he once turned down a settlement offer of $22 million from Ford and Chrysler.

The e-mail that Dennis sent me read, in part: "Thanks for noticing it was about principle. My dad wasn't in it to make money, he wanted to make jobs and have a factory producing his patented devices."

I spoke with Dennis Kearns recently; the remainder of this story is based on our conversation.

Invention Mysteries: How did your dad get the idea for intermittent windshield wipers?

Kearns: He got his idea on his wedding night in 1953, when a champagne cork struck him in the left eye, which eventually went blind. The blinking of his eye led him to wonder if he could make windshield wipers that worked the same way -- so they would move at intervals instead of in a constant back-and-forth motion.

He was working in the biomechanics lab at Wayne State University while getting his Ph.D., studying how things like the human eye work. While working on his thesis, his teacher suggested that he come up with a less costly topic than his original plan, which was for a huge digital computer. So he went to work on developing intermittent windshield wipers, having patterned the concept after his blinking eye.

Invention Mysteries: Tell me about your dad's struggles with the big automakers.

Kearns: The law firm that first represented Dad switched over to Chrysler's side, right after the judge had sold his land to Chrysler for their world headquarters. He was one of the top 10 wealthiest judges in the country at the time (they later switched judges).

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Invention Mysteries: Did your dad invent anything in addition to intermittent windshield wipers?

Kearns: Yes, he was consulting with the Treasury Department in the early 1970s to design a better system for printing money, because the plates were wearing out too fast. He didn't get a patent on the process, but he kept the cost of making a dollar down! He has notebooks full of other ideas and concepts.

Invention Mysteries: How old were you when your dad invented the intermittent windshield wipers? What was it like growing up with an inventor in the house?

Kearns: I was 10 years old at the time, and having a dad as an inventor was no different to us than what other kids experienced. He was a member of the Office of Strategic Services, which was the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, during World War II. He had a high enough IQ that when he went into the armed forces at age 17, all the armed forces branches wanted him; they fought over him, really.

(End of interview)

Toward the end of my conversation with Dennis Kearns, he told me that his family had just negotiated movie rights for the story, so we might see it on the big screen in a couple of years.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at You can learn more about Invention Mysteries by visiting the official Invention Mysteries website.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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