Millions of dollars can't wipe away pain

March 26, 1995|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,Sun Staff Writer

QUEENSTOWN -- Five years ago, Robert W. Kearns walked away from $30 million offered by Ford. Last week, he simply shrugged when he won $21 million from Chrysler.

What Mr. Kearns wishes he had is the time he's lost.

For 32 years, Mr. Kearns has relentlessly pursued automakers worldwide to get proper credit for inventing the intermittent windshield wiper. In the process, he saw his marriage collapse, suffered a nervous breakdown and consumed every waking moment steeped in lawsuits.

Some -- even his daughter -- have questioned his sanity. Few understand why nothing will placate his outrage at automakers that bypassed him -- an unknown inventor -- and used his design on their cars.

"It's got nothing to do with money," he says.

Mr. Kearns was born 68 years ago in the shadow of a Catholic church and, beyond, a Ford manufacturing plant, the lifeblood of his hometown, River Rouge, Mich., near Detroit.

Today, he feuds with God and automakers in the solitude of his farmhouse on the Wye River on the Eastern Shore.

"Thou shalt not steal. You said that," he implores his maker. "How come I have to carry the burden?"

Mr. Kearns believed in God, country and the Big Three when he invented the pausing wipers, now standard equipment on virtually every automobile on the planet.

But his greatest achievement would ultimately be the source of his greatest suffering.

"I don't think anybody -- nobody -- understands the pain," he says, choking back tears. "What did I do wrong?"

Celebrating wedding

On a balmy August evening in 1953, intermittent wipers didn't even exist. Mr. Kearns was celebrating his wedding, ensconced in an Ontario chateau, when a champagne bottle changed history.

The cork blasted him in his left eye. His wife, Phyllis, rushed out of their private bathroom in a lace slip to find her pajama-clad husband covered in blood.

Mr. Kearns, then a neophyte engineer, lost most of his sight in his left eye. But the accident lifted a veil. It made him think about his loss: the mechanics of the eye, the opening and closing of the lid, the hesitation in the motion, the meaning of the design. "God doesn't have eyelids move continuously. They blink."

He set out to make wipers that blink, too.

The idea moved glacially as Mr. Kearns gathered knowledge, working toward a doctorate in engineering while teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit. Nurturing his theory, he built a laboratory in his basement, separated from his wife's laundry room by a glass-paneled office. Under fluorescent lights, he cultivated his ideas with voltmeters, capacitors, relays and oscilloscopes.

Day, and often in the middle of the night, he slipped down into the family basement, logging his findings in 23 300-page books. "Engineering was his life," Mrs. Kearns recalls.

"The kids tell me I came home and went straight down to the basement," he says. "But that's false propaganda."

Mr. Kearns began with experiments on a large pane of glass, then graduated to a Dodge dashboard and windshield, salvaged from a junkyard. "Of course," his former wife says, "if it rained, we dropped everything and ran outside, got in the car and ran" a test.

By October 1963, Mr. Kearns' maroon Ford Galaxie convertible was ready for the real thing: a demonstration at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Mich. Cupped in his palm was the object of countless trials, late night coffee and most of his spare cash -- a red intermittent wiper control box labeled "Do Not Open."

He knew enough not to share trade secrets.

Ford officials seemed intrigued but noncommittal. When they invited him back, a dozen engineers greeted him at the brick arch entrance, armed with questions and a demonstration of their own. From a distance, they rolled out a Mercury with an intermittent wiper under development.

The mutual admiration society ended there. The engineers wanted answers from Mr. Kearns, and he complied, unraveling the circuit board mystery he had mastered. He thought he would be welcomed into the Ford fold. He thought he would be the one to manufacture the revolutionary new wiper and sell it to Detroit. Instead, he was sent away -- with no assurances of another meeting.

As much as he loved his invention, Mr. Kearns still had faith in Ford. He always had faith in the giant auto plant that captured his childhood imagination.

"There it was," he says, lifting his arms to the heavens. "It was providing all the employment. What does it tell you in the Bible? 'Love thy neighbor.' "

Each time the engineers beckoned for more information, Mr. Kearns couldn't say no. He would return willingly. He smiles ruefully: "Have you ever been in love and been rejected? And then gone back? Well, what can I say? That's what I did."

Finally, when they stopped calling him for good in 1965, he went quietly.

Ford hit the market with the first electronic intermittent wiper in 1969. Mr. Kearns received neither credit nor compensation for his patented invention, but continued to believe he had not been betrayed.

Until July 1976.

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