Friday, December 18, 2009

Intermittent Windshield Wipers

A now routine automotive feature pitted an individual inventor against the entire industry

The origins of even the simplest technology are sometimes best remembered not for the ingenuity of the inventor’s imagination but rather for the endless legal disputes it engendered. In the annals of famous patent litigation, the intermittent windshield wiper holds a pride of place. The genesis of this useful but seemingly incidental feature of the modern automobile even attracted Hollywood scriptwriters in search of a latter-day David and Goliath tale that became a 2008 release called Flash of Genius.

The story revolves around a brilliant, idiosyncratic college professor named Robert Kearns. Almost blinded by a champagne cork on his wedding night in 1953, Kearns later found that the monotonous backand-forth movement of wiper blades vexed his diminished vision, as recounted in the most commonly cited version of events. Kearns used off-the-shelf electronic parts in 1963 to devise windshield wipers that would clean the surface and then pause. The engineer demonstrated his system to Ford and ended up revealing details of how it worked. The automaker decided not to buy wipers from a Detroit tool and die company to which Kearns had licensed his patent rights— and it subsequently developed its own system.

In 1976 Kearns, then working with the National Bureau of Standards, disassembled a commercial wiper system and discovered that the company had apparently adopted his own design. He promptly had a nervous breakdown and, once recovered, began a struggle that lasted until the 1990s to gain redress. Kearns recruited several of his children to help in preparing lawsuits against the world’s major auto companies, sometimes even serving as his own legal counsel. Juries ultimately determined that Ford and Chrysler had infringed Kearns’s patents, resulting in about $30 million in awards. Critics have argued that Kearns’s inventions violated a key criterion of patentability, that an invention should not be “obvious” to one skilled in making widgets similar to the type being patented. An electronic timer— the essence of Kearns’s invention—was, if anything, obvious, Ford contended. Still, Kearns prevailed in these two cases (but not later ones), and he will live on indefinitely as a hero to small inventors.

Source of Information : Scientific American September 2009

No comments: