Flash of Genius, the film version of inventor Robert Kearns‘ life, comes out this weekend, starring Greg Kinnear.
I don’t know what’s in the movie, but I got to know the real Kearns, who lived in Montgomery County and on the Eastern Shore, back in the late 1980s.
I wrote for a small chain of automotive trade papers at the time, and his tale was more David vs. Goliath than anything I’d ever come across.
When I met him, Kearns had already spent years fighting pretty much every car manufacturer in the world for stealing his idea for intermittent windshield wipers. The design patents on the pertinent technology were good for 17 years back then, but had expired by the time his lawsuits went to trial.
Yet Kearns won his first infringement cases, against Ford and Chrysler if memory serves, with verdicts totaling about $30 million.
And since the facts set in the Ford and Chrysler suits was similar to that in his cases against the other manufacturers, the remaining automakers were expected to start lining up wanting to settle with him financially.
But Kearns wouldn’t take any of the money awarded to him. He appealed all the verdicts in his favor and asked the courts to instead restore the time on his patents.
Kearns, who grew up in Detroit, told me his childhood dream had always been to be a supplier to the automakers, not to be rich. So the money alone meant little to him. He put all the automakers’ millions in escrow and kept on trying to get a court to turn back the clock.
Kearns told me that in his younger days he had been a member of the OSS, the pre-CIA intelligence outfit, and often put his legal fight in patriotic terms. He felt that all American industry was built on the ideas of smart little guys, and that his fight was for them. A win for him, he said, would help stop the country’s slippage as an industrial powerhouse.
The problem with Kearns’ appeals, as all his lawyers told him, was that no court would ever give him his patents back; he should take the money from Ford and Chrysler and all the other automakers and have fun with it.
He wouldn’t listen. So many attorneys were hired and fired—-though they all still wanted their contingency fees from Kearns—-that a federal judge eventually told Kearns he couldn’t hire any more. With Kearns representing himself, all the remaining cases, even those against companies who were willing to settle, were simply thrown out.
His attorneys weren’t the only ones telling him he was crazy.
So were his ex-wife and most of his children. He was thrown in Montgomery County jail once for showing up at his old house in violation of a court order.
“They think I’m throwing away their inheritance,” Kearns told me.
The courts ordered him to pay his ex-wife millions from the escrow account while he kept up his fight.
Kearns died in 2005. The last time I saw him was in 1995, and by then he had made peace with his family and his lot in life. He had just gotten back into town after a family reunion out west at a house his ex-wife bought with her share of his windshield-wiper bounty.
He had asked me to meet him at the U.S. Supreme Court, where he was filing what would turn out to be his final defeat in the wiper litigation.
As I helped him carry boxes of his pleadings, which he had written all by himself and had made into neat black-and-white pamphlets, to the clerk’s office, Kearns told me he had been spending all his time either at the University of Maryland law library or dancing at nightspots on the Eastern Shore. Both activities pleased him immensely.
When we finished with our box carrying, he admitted knowing that the Supreme Court probably wouldn’t side with him, but he said he had done his best drawing up the appeal, and so he had no regrets.
He then said goodbye, got in his car, a vintage Chrysler or Buick or some sort of land barge from one of the Big Three manufacturers that had ripped him off decades earlier, and cranked the ignition.
“Could you give me a jump?” Kearns asked with a smile and giggle.
The bizarreness of one of the great American automotive engineering minds of all time needing help getting his car started from me and my borrowed Mitsubishi—-right next to the U.S. Supreme Court building, no less—-had me giddy right away.
This could be in a movie, I thought.