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Robert Kearns, 77; Invented Intermittent Windshield Wipers

February 26, 2005|From Associated Press

Robert Kearns, the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers, who won multimillion-dollar judgments against Ford and Chrysler for using his idea, has died. He was 77.

Kearns died of cancer Feb. 9 at his home in suburban Baltimore, his family said.

In 1967, Kearns received several patents for his design for wipers that paused between swipes, making them useful in light rain or mist. The invention allows the driver to set the interval at which the wiper sweeps the window.

He shopped his invention around to various automakers but did not reach a licensing deal with any of them. Carmakers eventually began offering intermittent wipers, however, as standard or optional equipment.

Kearns sued Ford Motor Co. in 1978 and Chrysler in 1982, claiming patent infringement.

In 1990, a jury decided that Ford had infringed on Kearns' patent, though it concluded the infringement was not deliberate. Ford had contended the patent was invalid because the windshield system contained no new concepts, but Kearns argued that a new combination of parts made his invention unique.

The jury failed to reach agreement on how much Kearns should be awarded; another jury later ordered Ford to pay him $6.3 million, trimmed by a judge to $5.2 million. To settle the case, the company later agreed to pay $10.2 million and to drop all appeals.

Chrysler was ordered to pay Kearns $18.7 million plus interest; the Supreme Court rejected the company's bid to overturn the award in 1995.

"I don't think the goal was the magnitude of the money," Kearns said when the Ford case was ended. "What I saw [as] my role was to defend the patent system."

Later, though, Kearns' lawsuit against General Motors Corp. was dismissed, as were his lawsuits against foreign carmakers. Much of the money he was awarded went to legal expenses.

Kearns was disappointed because the courts didn't bar the companies from continuing to use the wipers.

U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, who presided over five of Kearns' trials, said Kearns was frustrated because he wanted to be a major manufacturer.

"He was feisty, determined and he established the fact that he made a contribution to the auto industry that was unique," Cohn said.

Kearns was born in Gary, Ind., and grew up in suburban Detroit. He was a member of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, during World War II. After the war, he earned engineering degrees from the University of Detroit and Wayne State University and a doctorate from Case Western Reserve University.

Kearns is survived by two daughters; four sons; a brother; and seven grandchildren.

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