In November, 1962, Bob Kearns was driving his Ford Galaxie through the streets of Detroit when it started to rain lightly. Kearns turned the wipers on low. In those days, even the most advanced wipers had just two settings, one for steady rain and one for heavy rain; in a mizzling rain, they screeched back and forth across the glass, mesmerizing the driver, and occasionally causing accidents.
In October, Kearns decided that the time had come to demonstrate his invention to a car manufacturer. He chose Ford, because it had supplied him with some wiper motors to experiment on and because “to me Ford was always the greatest.”
Finally, Roger Shipman, a Ford supervisor, announced to Kearns that he had “won the wiper competition.” He told Kearns that his wiper would be used on the 1969 Mercury line. Kearns was given the prototype of a windshield-wiper motor to commemorate the occasion. The other engineers welcomed him aboard Ford’s wiper team. Then, according to Kearns, Shipman asked him to show his wiper control to the rest of the team. Wipers were a safety item, Shipman explained, and the law required disclosure of all the engineering before Ford could give Kearns a contract. This sounded reasonable to Kearns, so he explained to the Ford engineers exactly how his intermittent wiper worked.
About five months later, Kearns was dismissed. He was told that Ford did not want his wiper system after all—that the other engineers had designed their own.
1969, Ford came out with a new, electronic intermittent windshield wiper, the first in the industry. It used a transistor, a resistor, and a capacitor in the same configuration that Kearns had designed. It cost Ford about ten dollars to make, and it sold for thirty-seven dollars. At first, Ford offered the intermittent wiper as a stand-alone option, and it sold slowly. Then Ford packaged it with another gadget—the remote-control side mirror, which was one of Ford’s most popular options—and wiper sales took off. In 1974, General Motors began putting the intermittent wiper on its cars, and in 1977 it appeared on Chryslers. Saab, Honda, Volvo, Rolls-Royce, and Mercedes, among others, soon followed. By 1989, Ford alone had sold 20.6 million cars with the intermittent wiper, and made a profit that has been calculated at five hundred and fifty-seven million dollars.
n Kearns filed suit against the Ford Motor Company, in 1978, Ford did what corporations usually do in patent cases: it began stalling, in the hope that Kearns would lose heart or run out of money. Patent cases are richly endowed with opportunities for stalling. The heart of Ford’s defense was that Kearns’ patents were invalid, because according to the Doctrine of Nonobviousness his intermittent wiper was not an invention at all.
The Ford case came to trial in January, 1990—twelve years after it was filed. Most of Kearns’ patents had expired by then. The waters of progress had closed over his head. Judge Avern Cohn divided the trial into two parts: one to determine whether Kearns’ patents were valid and infringed, and, if they were, one to determine how much Ford should pay for infringing them.
The first trial lasted three weeks, and the jury deliberated for another week. It found that Kearns’ patents were valid and that Ford had infringed them. Ford, concerned about the size of the award that a jury in Wayne County might give Kearns, offered to settle the case for thirty million dollars. Kearns, against everyone’s advice, turned the money down. “To accept money from Ford would have been like admitting it was O.K. for them to do what they did,” he said.
So there was a second trial, and the second trial awarded Kearns $5.2 million, or about thirty cents a wiper plus interest.
a little more than three decades after his good idea came to him, Kearns will go to trial in a suit he has brought against General Motors. Kearns, who is sixty-five years old, has already defeated Ford and Chrysler in court, and he stands to collect more than twenty million dollars from them for infringing his patents on the intermittent windshield wiper.
What had me reading about this? Well, I stumbled across Ford's "we won't touch your invention with a 10 foot pole" webpage, and I immediately realized - BULLSHIT!
"Just as Ford expects others to respect our intellectual property rights, we are committed to respecting the intellectual property rights of others."