Guide to the Robert W. Kearns Papers
Portions of this collection are digitized

Collection ID:
Kearns, Robert W.
Kearns, Timothy
Brown, Brian Ivan
Quan, John
1963 - 1999
Collection is in
. Some materials in
Physical Description:
8.5 Cubic feet
24 boxes
The collection documents the inventive career of physicist and engineer Robert W. Kearns. Kearns invented and patented in 1967 the windshield wiper system with intermittent operation (US 3,351,836), among other inventions. The papers include notebooks, correspondence, reports, memoranda, photographs, patents, drawings, and trade literature.

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
The collection includes notebooks, correspondence, reports, memoranda, photographs, patents, drawings, and trade literature. Kearns held patents related to circuitry which are integral to electronic intermittent windshield wipers. The windshield wiper documentation consists of patents, correspondence, and a set of drawings from November 16, 1967 for Tann Company. Other documentation includes Kearns's work with the engineering firm Kearns and Law (brochures, shop orders, agreements); his National Bureau of Standards work, which consists of his personnel file and notebooks detailing his highway skid resistance research; and subject files that cover a range of topics that interested Kearns, such as radar, speed control, and electric cars. At the heart of the collection are 32 invention notebooks (1963-1986) belonging to Kearns as well as engineers he worked with including John Quan, Brian Ivan Brown, and Timothy Kearns, son of Robert Kearns. Bound, paginated, and dated, the notebooks contain sketches, schematics, calculations, data, telephone numbers, and details about materials, costs, testing data, and descriptions for many of Kearns's projects. The notebooks present a comprehensive overview of his ideas and are significant to understanding his creative process and how his ideas changed or did not change over time. The majority of the notebooks are arranged in chronological order and therefore researchers can see Kearns's work unfold. Many of the notebooks are stamped with a "PO" to indicate a "protective order" followed by a number, and many of the notebooks were used during court proceedings. The protective order restricted access to notebooks which were filed with the court, or to be filed with the court at a future date.

The collection is arranged into ten series.
Series 1: Biographical Materials, 1957-1991
Series 2: Notebooks, 1954-1994
Series 3: Patents, 1957-1985
Series 4: Kearns and Law Engineers, 1957-1962
Series 5: Kearns Engineers, 1967-1985
Series 6: National Bureau of Standards, 1967-1972
Series 7: Ford Motor Company (Engineering Technical Education Program), 1964-1966
Series 8: Windshield Wiper Materials (Kearns vs. Ford Motor Company), 1962-1993
Series 9: Subject Files, 1965-1999
Series 10: Correspondence, 1989-1999

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
Robert William Kearns was born in Gary, Indiana on March 10, 1927 to Martin W. Kearns and Mary E. Kearns. One of three children, Kearns grewup in the Detroit area, graduating from the University of Detroit, Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (1952); Wayne State University, Masters of Science in Engineering Mechanics (1957); and Case Western Reserve University, Ph.D. in engineering (1964). Kearns also earned certificates in nuclear reactor control from Argonne National Laboratories (1958 and 1959). He was a Corporal in the United States Army, assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Strategic Services Unit (SSU); the Central Intelligence Group (CIG), and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA.) from July 31, 1945 to November 29, 1946.
Prior to joining the military in 1945, Kearns worked at Mercury Engineering Company (1943-1945) in Detroit as a draftsman preparing engineering shop drawings. After the war, Kearns joined the H & A Tool and Die Company (1946-1947), also in Detroit, as a draftsman preparing engineering shop drawings for the manufacture of the individual parts for machinery and special dies. Through the University of Detroit Cooperative Program with the National Bureau of Standards, he participated in an engineer in training program (1949-1952) where he executed a variety of standardized tests on engineering materials. He held a variety of engineering positions: designer/draftsman with Peerless Design Company, Detroit (1952); junior engineer with Burroughs Corporation Research Laboratories, Philadelphia (1952-1953); and engineer with Bendix Aviation Corporation, Detroit (1953-1957) where Kearns supervised and directed of a group of engineers responsible for the design of computer components, servomechanisms, control systems and related devices. Other duties included planning, liaison with other Bendix divisions, establishing test equipment requirements, as well as technical specifications and reports. In 1957, Kearns joined the faculty of Wayne State University, Department of Engineering Mechanics, as an assistant professor (1957-1963), later becoming an associate professor (1963-1967).
Kearns also established two independent businesses, the engineering firms of Kearns and Law (1963-1976) and Computer Central (1965-1976). Founded with partner Kenneth J. Law, an electrical engineer, Kearns and Law provided industry with consultation, research, design, and development services in the fields of computers, automatic controls and instrumentation. Computer Central manufactured a series of control components such as the Linear Range Comparator, Sign or Equality Binary Comparator, Identity Comparator, Dual Brush V-Scan Encoder Electronics, Gray Code to Binary Code Encoder Electronics, and Digital Difference to Analog Converters. Kearns served as Detroit's Commissioner of Buildings and Safety Engineering (1967-1971), where he acted as an administrator, overseeing professional engineering activities such as building inspections. Kearns moved to Gaithersburg, Maryland in 1971 to become principal investigator for the highway skid resistance program at the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (1971-1976).
In 1967, Kearns invented and patented an electronic windshield wiper system with intermittent operation (US 3,351,836). Previous wiper systems were controlled by vacuum tubes. He installed his device on his 1962 Ford Galaxy and met with Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation in 1963 with the goal of manufacturing his idea and being a supplier to the auto industry. Kearns tried to commercialize the wiper through the Tann Corporation. In 1969, Kearns's intermittent windshield wiper was installed on Ford cars without his knowledge. He ultimately filed suit against Ford for patent infringement in 1978 (representing himself as Kearns Associates), seeking $141 million in damages (a figure eventually raised to $325 million). Kearns's purpose in pursuing litigation was not a cash award. Rather, he wanted the rightful ownership. In all, he filed lawsuits against 26 car manufacturers and other companies concerning the same patent (US 3,351,836). In July 1990, a federal jury ruled that Ford had unintentionally infringed on Kearns's patent and awarded him $10.2 million. In June 1992, Kearns was awarded $11 million from Chrysler. Kearns held over 30 patents, with the majority relating to windshield wipers.
Kearns died in 2005. He married Phyllis Hall (1932-2013) in 1953, divorcing in 1989. The couple had six children: Dennis Kearns (b.1954); Timothy Kearns (b.1956); Patrick Kearns (b.1958); Kathleen Corsetty (b. 1961); Maureen Kearns (b. 1964); and Bob Kearns (b. 1967).

Alison Oswald
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Collection donated by the Estate of Robert W. Kearns, through Dennis Kearns and Maureen Kearns, 2016.
Over the years, Robert Kearns moved many times, carrying his papers and business records from Detroit, Michigan to Gaithersburg, Maryland, to Houston, Texas, and finally to Queenstown, Maryland. In Queenstown, these materials, comprising approximately 200 cubic feet, were located in five spaces within the home (foyer, living room, porch, bedroom, and attic). By 2016, the house, which Kearns purchased in the early 1990s, was in severe decay from vandalism, structural neglect, and water damage making identification and salvage of the documents difficult. Most of the materials, stored in metal filing cabinets in multiple locations, were patent litigation documents for the intermittent windshield wiper (US 3,351,836). Kearns sued Ford for patent infringement in 1978, seeking millions in damages and subsequently filed the same legal action against twenty-six other auto makers. Litigation–especially patent litigation–generates a daunting amount of material, including many duplicate documents. Because the Archives Center has documented patent litigation through other collections, it chose not to collect this Kearns material.
Although the Archives Center did select some materials generated by Kearns' work on the windshield wiper, it focused on other aspects of Kearns' career, such as his employment at the National Bureau of Standards and his invention activities which are documented in a near complete run of invention notebooks dating from 1954 to 1994.
Archivists examined over 200 cubic feet of material in the Kearns house and selected 8.5 cubic feet for permanent retention.
Processing Information
Collection processed by Alison Oswald, archivist, 2017. These materials were previously dispersed, both physically and intellectually, at time of acquisition. An arrangement scheme for the papers was imposed during processing in the absence of a usable original order. Original file folder titles were retained in most cases.

Using the Collection
Preferred Citation
Robert W. Kearns Papers, 1963-1992, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research. Some health-related materials in Series 6: National Bureau of Standards are restricted until 2055.
Conditions Governing Use
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.

Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Reports -- 20th century Type Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Trade literature -- 20th century Type Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Patents -- 20th century Type Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Photographs -- 20th century Type Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Drawings -- 20th century Type Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Inventions -- 20th century Topic Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Windshield wipers Topic Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Automobiles -- Design and construction Topic Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Notebooks -- 20th century Type Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Correspondence -- 20th century Type Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Inventors Occupation Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Memorandums -- 20th century Type Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
United States. Bureau of Standards. Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Kearns and Law Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Tann Company Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

Repository Contact
Archives Center, National Museum of American History
P.O. Box 37012
Suite 1100, MRC 601
Washington, D.C. 20013-7012