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).