Robert Kearns

In the world of automotive innovations, there are countless unsung heroes who have contributed significantly to enhancing our driving experience. One such remarkable individual is Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. Kearns’s invention revolutionized the automotive industry, making driving safer and more convenient for millions of people worldwide. This biography explores the life and achievements of Robert Kearns, shedding light on his journey as an inventor and his indelible impact on the automotive world.

Early Life and Education

Robert William Kearns was born on March 10, 1927, in Gary, Indiana, to a middle-class family. From an early age, Kearns exhibited a natural curiosity and an aptitude for tinkering with mechanical devices. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a strong desire to understand how things worked. Kearns’s parents recognized his talent and encouraged him to pursue his passion.

After graduating from high school, Kearns enrolled at the University of Detroit, where he studied mechanical engineering. He excelled academically and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1949. Kearns’s education provided him with a solid foundation in engineering principles and prepared him for the challenges he would later face as an inventor.

The Intermittent Windshield Wiper: The Spark of Innovation

The idea for the intermittent windshield wiper, Kearns’s most significant invention, originated from a personal experience that forever changed his life. In 1953, Kearns and his wife, Phyllis, were driving through a drizzling rain when the steady motion of the car’s wiper blades irritated Kearns. He noticed that the continuous wiping hindered his visibility more than it helped. This frustration inspired Kearns to find a solution to the problem.

Kearns began analyzing the operation of the windshield wiper mechanism, experimenting with various ideas to introduce intermittent wiping intervals. After numerous iterations and countless hours of trial and error, Kearns came up with a novel design that allowed for intermittent wiping while still providing adequate visibility during rainfall. His design utilized a small electronic circuit that controlled the wiper motor’s speed and intermittent intervals.

Patent Battles and Legal Struggles

In 1964, Kearns filed a patent application for his intermittent windshield wiper design. The United States Patent and Trademark Office granted him his first patent in 1967. Kearns believed that his invention had the potential to revolutionize the automotive industry and approached several major automobile manufacturers to license his technology.

However, instead of the recognition and fair compensation he anticipated, Kearns faced rejection and skepticism from the industry giants. Various companies, including Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, dismissed Kearns’s invention, claiming that the technology was either unimportant or already in development. This betrayal fueled Kearns’s determination to fight for his rights as the inventor and seek justice.

Kearns decided to take legal action against the automobile manufacturers for patent infringement. He pursued numerous lawsuits, representing himself in court, as he could not afford to hire expensive legal representation. Kearns’s legal battles stretched over several years, draining his financial resources and taking a toll on his personal life.

Despite the obstacles he faced, Kearns’s tenacity paid off. In 1978, after years of legal struggles, Kearns won his first major victory against Ford. The court ruled in his favor, acknowledging that Ford had willfully infringed on his patent. This landmark decision set a precedent for future cases involving patent holders and provided Kearns with the validation he had long sought.

Legacy and Impact

Robert Kearns’s invention of the intermittent windshield wiper had a profound impact on the automotive industry. Before his innovation, drivers had limited control over the speed of their windshield wipers, forcing them to settle for either constant or manually adjusted wiping speeds. Kearns’s invention allowed for automatic intermittent wiping, adapting to the varying intensity of rain and significantly improving driver visibility.

Following Kearns’s legal victories, other automobile manufacturers began adopting his technology. The intermittent windshield wiper became a standard feature in vehicles, enhancing safety and driving comfort for millions of people worldwide. Kearns’s invention also paved the way for the development of other automotive safety features, demonstrating the power of innovation and the lasting impact a single invention can have on an entire industry.

Later Life and Recognition

In the years following his legal battles, Kearns faced several personal challenges. The prolonged litigation and financial strain took a toll on his health and family life. Nevertheless, Kearns continued to invent and innovate, obtaining additional patents for various technologies, including fuel vapor recovery systems.

Kearns’s contributions did not go unnoticed, and he received recognition for his groundbreaking invention. In 2005, Kearns’s life story was depicted in the movie “Flash of Genius,” starring Greg Kinnear as Kearns. The film highlighted Kearns’s relentless pursuit of justice and his unwavering belief in the importance of protecting intellectual property rights. Kearns died in 2005.

In 2007, Robert Kearns was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, further solidifying his place among the most influential inventors of the 20th century. Kearns’s story serves as a reminder of the resilience and determination required to bring a groundbreaking invention to fruition and the importance of protecting the rights of inventors.


Robert Kearns’s invention of the intermittent windshield wiper revolutionized the automotive industry and forever changed the way we drive. Despite facing numerous challenges and betrayals, Kearns’s unwavering determination and belief in his invention led him to victory and recognition. His invention not only improved driving safety but also served as an inspiration for countless inventors and innovators around the world.

Robert Kearns’s legacy extends beyond the intermittent windshield wiper. His story serves as a testament to the power of perseverance and the impact a single individual can have on an entire industry. Kearns’s journey reminds us of the importance of protecting intellectual property rights and encourages future inventors to pursue their ideas, no matter the obstacles they may face.

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