Noyes revisits "Flash of Genius"

October 4, 2008 1:47:53 PM PDT
A new movie Flash of Genius is about a small-time inventor who took on the major auto companies -- and won. It's a true story.

It sounded familiar to ABC7 News I-Team reporter Dan Noyes.

The inventor, Bob Kearns, died a few years ago. I first met him in 1983. He was right in the thick of his battle against Ford, and it was a battle that cost him so much.

"Flash of Genius" profiles the man who invented the little switch and motor that allows you to adjust your wipers for a light rain.

I remembered that story from when I was a young reporter at CNN.

I pulled the script and the tape from 1983 and there he was, Bob Kearns in his basement in Maryland, showing me his invention, and talking about how Ford and other huge car companies were trying to steal "his Mona Lisa."

"I would deviate from my engineering lectures and talk about manhood and principles and right and wrong and all of a sudden, I'm on stage and it's time for me to put up or shut up and I decided I was going to put up," said Inventor Bob Kearns in 1983.

In 1963, Kearns brought his invention to Ford's headquarters in Detroit and handed over a prototype. But then, trouble.

The deal died, but just a few years later, Ford debuted Kearns' technology in a Mustang.

When I met him, Ford had just offered Kearns $4 million -- one Ford official told me it was to "get him out of our hair."

Kearns turned down the offer.

"I interpret what they're saying is here's $4 million and get out of our life and go sit on a park bench. And going to sit on a park bench is not why I'm on Earth. I felt that I was supposed to do more than that," said Kearns in 1983.

In the years after our interview, the legal battles raged on; Kearns often acting as his own attorney. The pressure lead to a divorce and a nervous breakdown.

But, Kearns told me he had to keep up the fight on behalf of small-time inventors who lose their work to big corporations, because of problems in the patent system.

"It encourages the pirates to hire high-priced attorneys to delay and to frustrate, they're frustrating the court system," said Kearns in 1983.

Kearns' case reached the Supreme Court, and in 1995, 32 years after he first showed ford his invention, Kearns finally won $30 million from Ford and Chrysler.

Bob Kearns died in 2005 from brain cancer and complications of Alzheimer's. I thought this was an interesting David and Goliath story when I met Kearns 25 years ago. No way did I see this becoming a major motion picture.


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