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See Inside September 2009

Intermittent Windshield Wipers

A now routine automotive feature pitted an individual inventor against the entire industry

The origins of even the simplest technology are sometimes best remembered not for the ingenuity of the inventor’s imagination but rather for the endless legal disputes it engendered. In the annals of famous patent litigation, the intermittent windshield wiper holds a pride of place. The genesis of this useful but seemingly incidental feature of the modern automobile even attracted Hollywood scriptwriters in search of a latter-day David and Goliath tale that became a 2008 release called Flash of Genius.

The story revolves around a brilliant, idiosyncratic college professor named Robert Kearns. Almost blinded by a champagne cork on his wedding night in 1953, Kearns later found that the monotonous back-and-forth movement of wiper blades vexed his diminished vision, as recounted in the most commonly cited version of events.

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