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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Flash of Genius

Starts June 25

The genius in this true story was Dr. Robert Kearns, a college professor in Detroit, who in 1964 filed five patents for his invention of the intermittent windshield wiper. The Ford Automobile Company welcomed him on board as a “partner,” but, after carefully examining his prototype, ditched him in order to manufacture an identical copy in 1969. Incensed at this disrespectful treatment, Kearns struggled almost 25 years in court for recognition. Ethics – something he stressed in his university classes of applied electrical engineering—was important to him; money was not. He naively expected the company to do the right thing by him. In the process of seeking rightful recognition, he suffered a mental disorder, spent time in psychiatric treatment and was abandoned by friends and wife Phyllis. Lawyers and company representatives attempted to persuade him to accept an out-of-court settlement, going from an initial $250,000 to $30 million. He rejected these offers saying “I believe in a little thing called justice” and decided to represent himself in court. Several of his six children stood by him.

The film by Marc Abraham is interesting simply because it introduces a personality whom we might have missed in the news, e.g., his obituary in 2005. Greg Kinnear plays him as a single-minded but basically good man, definitely a bright, intelligent man who loves his family. It’s the story of David and Goliath – the small person against the giant and choosing sides is easy. That the automobile companies presently suffer financially seems like what they deserve. Nothing like a little malicious grin over their losses or as the Germans say Schadenfreude ist auch eine Freude. The film is based on an article which John Seabrook wrote for The New Yorker Magazine. Today more than 145 million vehicles have his windshield wipers, originally called Kearns Blinking Eye Wiper.

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