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March 01, 2005

Where are the flying cars?

I've often heard people remark, "This is the 21st century -- where the heck are the flying cars?!?" We all expected more technology by this time, and the question remains, what happened.

Maybe Robert Kearns could have told us.

Robert Kearns, earned a doctorate in engineering from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and taught engineering for 11 years at Wayne State University in Detroit. A native of Gary, Ind., he grew up near the giant Ford plant in River Rouge, Mich., and always thought of the auto company as a place that welcomed someone with ingenuity.

He got an idea on his wedding night in 1953, when a champagne cork struck him in the left eye, which eventually became blind. The blinking of his eye led him to wonder if he could make windshield wipers that worked the same way -- that would move at intervals instead of in a constant back-and-forth motion.

After years of experiments at home and on his cars -- "If it ever rained," his former wife, Phyllis Hall, recalled yesterday, "I had to drop everything and go out with him in the car" -- Kearns believed his invention was ready.

He applied for patents, mounted his wipers on his 1962 Ford Galaxie and drove to Ford's headquarters. Engineers swarmed over his car, at one point sending him out of the workroom, convinced he was activating the wipers with a button in his pocket.

In 1976, Kearns's son bought an electric circuit for a Mercedes-Benz intermittent wiper, which Kearns took apart, only to discover it was almost identical to what he'd invented.

Kearns filed suit against Ford for patent infringement in 1978, seeking $141 million in damages (a figure eventually raised to $325 million). In all, he filed lawsuits against 26 car manufacturers and other companies.

After 12 years of litigation, Ford finally offered to pay Kearns millions of dollars to settle the case. His attorney at the time, William Durkee of Houston, estimated Kearns could have received at least $50 million from Ford and comparable amounts from other carmakers.

Kearns turned them down.

"He wanted to be a manufacturer and supply that system to the automotive industry," said Richard L. Aitken, a Washington patent lawyer who had worked with Kearns since the 1960s. "That was the most important thing to him."

In July 1990, a federal jury ruled that Ford had unintentionally infringed on Kearns's patent and awarded him $10.2 million.

After the Ford settlement, Kearns turned his sights on Chrysler. In December 1991, a federal jury ruled that Chrysler had infringed unfairly on his patent. Firing his law firm a week before the damage phase of the trial, Kearns argued his case and was awarded more than $20 million.

Chrysler appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Kearns was entitled to the money but rejected his argument that Chrysler should be prohibited from using his design.

Having gone through five law firms, an exhausted Kearns was unable to manage his multiple lawsuits on his own. When he missed deadlines for filing papers in his cases against General Motors Corp. and German and Japanese auto companies, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, who presided over all of Kearns's trials in Detroit, dismissed the remaining cases.

By then, Kearns's patents had expired, having passed the 17-year window of ownership then in effect. He bought a house on the Wye River, near Queenstown on the Eastern Shore, and entered an uneasy retirement.

During all this he had a nervous breakdown, his wife divorced him, and he supported himself on disability payments.

His settlements never covered the legal costs of fighting for his right to get paid for what he'd designed.

On February 9th, this year, Robert Kearns died.

Where are the flying cars? Safely tucked away in someone's head, who instead of inventing, decided to be a teacher or an accountant or anything else.

Posted by Jack Lewis at March 1, 2005 06:54 AM

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