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Pioneer of Safety: Robert Kearns and the Intermittent Wiper

Robert Kearns is widely recognized as the pioneer of automotive safety for his invention of the intermittent windshield wiper. This groundbreaking innovation revolutionized the way drivers navigate through rain, snow, and other adverse weather conditions. Kearns’ invention not only improved visibility on the road but also significantly reduced the number of accidents caused by impaired vision. In this article, we will delve into the life and achievements of Robert Kearns, explore the impact of his invention on automotive safety, and discuss the legal battles he faced in protecting his intellectual property.

The Life and Achievements of Robert Kearns

Robert William Kearns was born on March 10, 1927, in Gary, Indiana. From a young age, Kearns displayed a keen interest in engineering and mechanics. He pursued his passion by studying electrical engineering at the University of Detroit, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

During his time at the university, Kearns met his future wife, Phyllis. The couple married in 1953 and went on to have six children. Kearns’ dedication to his family and his desire to protect them on the road would later become the driving force behind his invention.

After completing his studies, Kearns embarked on a successful career as an engineer. He worked for various companies, including the prestigious Ford Motor Company. Kearns’ expertise in electrical engineering allowed him to gain valuable insights into automotive technology and safety.

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The Invention of the Intermittent Wiper

In the early 1960s, Kearns experienced a life-changing moment while driving in heavy rain. Frustrated by the constant need to manually adjust the speed of his windshield wipers, Kearns envisioned a system that would automatically regulate the wiper speed based on the intensity of the rain.

Driven by his desire to improve road safety, Kearns began working on his invention. He developed a prototype for the intermittent windshield wiper, which incorporated a timer and a series of electrical circuits. The timer allowed the wipers to pause between sweeps, providing intermittent visibility without distracting the driver.

After several years of refining his invention, Kearns filed a patent application in 1964. His invention was granted a patent in 1967, marking a significant milestone in automotive safety.

The Impact on Automotive Safety

Kearns’ invention of the intermittent windshield wiper had a profound impact on automotive safety. Prior to his invention, drivers had to manually adjust the speed of their wipers or rely on a single constant speed setting. This often resulted in impaired visibility, especially during light rain or mist.

The intermittent wiper system revolutionized the way drivers interacted with their windshield wipers. It provided a more efficient and convenient solution, allowing drivers to maintain optimal visibility without distraction. The ability to adjust the wiper speed automatically based on the intensity of the rain greatly enhanced safety on the road.

Studies have shown that the intermittent wiper system significantly reduces accidents caused by impaired vision. A research study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that vehicles equipped with intermittent wipers had a 27% lower accident rate compared to vehicles without this feature.

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Despite the groundbreaking nature of his invention, Kearns faced numerous legal battles in his quest to protect his intellectual property. Shortly after receiving his patent, Kearns approached various automakers, including Ford and Chrysler, to license his invention. However, his attempts were met with rejection and, in some cases, outright infringement.

In 1978, Kearns filed a lawsuit against Ford Motor Company for patent infringement. The legal battle lasted for over a decade and took a toll on Kearns’ personal and professional life. Despite facing numerous challenges, Kearns remained steadfast in his pursuit of justice.

In 1990, Kearns finally achieved a significant victory when a jury awarded him $10.2 million in damages from Ford. This landmark decision not only validated Kearns’ invention but also set a precedent for the protection of intellectual property in the automotive industry.

Legacy and Recognition

Robert Kearns’ invention of the intermittent windshield wiper left an indelible mark on automotive safety. His dedication to improving road visibility and reducing accidents has saved countless lives over the years. Kearns’ legacy continues to inspire inventors and engineers to develop innovative solutions that enhance safety on the road.

In recognition of his contributions, Kearns received several prestigious awards, including the National Inventors Hall of Fame induction in 2005. His story has been immortalized in the 2008 film “Flash of Genius,” which chronicles his legal battles and the impact of his invention.


Robert Kearns’ invention of the intermittent windshield wiper revolutionized automotive safety and improved visibility on the road. His dedication to protecting his intellectual property through legal battles against major automakers showcased his unwavering commitment to his invention and its potential to save lives. Kearns’ legacy serves as a reminder of the power of innovation and the importance of protecting intellectual property in advancing automotive safety.

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