73: Flash of Genius

If you’re a fan of history, 2008’s Flash of Genius tells the story about something that probably never even crossed your mind. One man’s journey to inventing the intermittent windshield wiper and how the huge car manufacturers tried to steal it from him.

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Episode Transcript

Four years after he started contributing to The New Yorker, John Seabrook was brought on as a staff writer. That same year, 1993, they published another in a long list of great articles John has written for The New Yorker—where he still works today.

Called The Flash of Genius, John’s article from 1993 may not have been something you read at the time. Although, to be fair, since the film adaptation of John’s article only earned about $4.6 million at the box office, it’s probably safe to assume you didn’t see that in theaters, either.

Hopefully you’ve had the chance to see Flash of Genius since it was released in 2008. If not and you don’t want spoilers, go ahead and give it a watch—I’ll wait.

Did you watch it? Haha, I’ve always wondered how many people actually do that. I’m guessing if you’re like me, if you haven’t seen the movie yet you probably won’t go see it before listening to this episode. If that’s the case, sorry for the spoilers!

Anyway, the term after which both John’s article and the movie are named is a reference to something that the U.S. Federal Courts required to determine whether or not an invention could be patented. Basically, the inventor had to have an epiphany, or a “flash of genius” before the government would acknowledge it as an invention and not just tinkering-turned-successful. If something did fall into the latter, it’d be public domain and not something the inventor would get rights to.

That’s not a term used today, though. In fact, the Flash of Genius Test, as it was called, was only around for about 11 years between 1941 and 1952. Now if you did happen to see the movie, you’ll know that the events in the movie happen well after 1952.

But are they historically accurate?

The true story behind Flash of Genius

After seeing those five words on screen, based on a true story, the movie opens with a rather vague sequence on a bus where we meet Robert Kearns as played by Greg Kinnear. After this, we travel three years before that vague opening sequence.

Unfortunately, I could never find any documentation that the real Robert Kearns was pulled off of a bus like we see the police do in this opening scene. That doesn’t necessarily mean it never happened, but it’s just not something we have proof to verify.

More important than that, though, I think is the timeline. The movie never mentions a date. So when is this happening? After the scene on the bus, the movie only says it’s three years before the opening sequence—but there’s no year on the opening sequence, so three years before when?

Now I don’t want to get too sidetracked here, but let’s do a little detective work to figure out how accurate the movie is to what we know of the timeline in history.

To figure this out, we’ll have to rely on the only solid information we have: the radio announcer’s voice in the background on the bus. If you listen closely there’s a few things we can pick up when he’s talking about baseball.

The first clue is when he says the Orioles continue to shoot skyward like a Saturn V. The Saturn V was a rocket from NASA that was used for the Apollo program. For example, Apollo 13 used a Saturn V. The mention of this in the movie gives us a ballpark time frame because we know from history that the Saturn V had its maiden voyage on November 9th, 1967 as a part of the Apollo 4 mission.

But what about the other part? Well, the announcer on the radio is talking about baseball and he mentions that the Orioles have clenched the pennant a week ago from whenever this incident on the bus is happening.

Again, we can compare this to history. On September 22nd, 1966, the Baltimore Orioles clinched the American League pennant with a 6-1 win over the Kansas City A’s. That was a Thursday, so if the radio on the bus is talking about it happening a week earlier that means the movie is probably starting sometime during the week of September 26th, 1966.

And it’d also mean the Saturn V rocket hadn’t come out yet, so there’s a bit of conflict there…but that’s the closest time when those two things match up. And since they are close, for all we know maybe that radio announcer heard about the Saturn V rocket before the maiden voyage.

Anyway, that would mean three years earlier would be 1963.

That’s when, according to the movie, Robert is driving his wife, Phyllis, and their children home from church one rainy Sunday when Robert notices his windshield wipers squeaking. The rain isn’t coming down fast enough to keep the glass wet, so the wipers squeak as they go back and forth.

All of that is pretty accurate.

Oh, and Phyllis is played by Lauren Graham in the movie.

I say pretty accurate because according to John Seabrook’s article in The New Yorker that the movie is based on, this actually happened in November of 1962. Although some other sources mention it happened in 1963.

Regardless of the exact timing, this flash of genius moment happened much like what we saw in the movie, although it wasn’t really the squeaking that annoyed Robert. Well, it might have—that is pretty annoying—but according to most versions of the story, the wipers were moving at a pace that was annoying his eye sight.

To know why that was a big deal, we have to pull yet another story from the movie. This is a story that the movie tells in bits and pieces throughout the entire film. We learn a bit in the beginning when Robert and his wife are at a dinner with friends and she mentions that Robert’s eye was injured after he tried to pop the cork on a bottle of Champagne. Then we learn a bit more much later when Robert’s in the courtroom and explains that the cork made him legally blind in his left eye.

Although one minor difference is that some versions of the story claim it was Robert and Phyllis’ wedding night instead of on their honeymoon, but close enough. As the story goes, after they were married in 1953, Robert and Phyllis were in a hotel room. Phyllis was getting changed in the bathroom while Robert was sitting on the bed opening a bottle of Champagne.

He’d never opened a bottle before, so he didn’t know how to open it properly. Before he knew it, the cork popped off and hit him in the left eye. As Robert would later recall, he fell back onto the bed and started bleeding all over the sheets. The commotion made Phyllis come out of the bathroom to a bloody mess and she started screaming.

That incident simultaneously left him legally blind in his left eye and also made Robert much more keen to protecting the good eye he had left.

So then it was about a decade later, in 1963, when Robert had the idea to invent a wiper blade that moved a lot more like the human eye—blinking.

Back in the movie, one of Robert’s friends by the name of Gil Previck helps finance Robert’s invention idea as well as introducing him to executives at Ford.

Gil is played by Dermot Mulroney in the film.

But Gil’s presence isn’t true because, as best as I can tell, Gil Previck isn’t a real person. At least, he’s not mentioned anywhere in John Seabrook’s article or in any of my other research.

Despite this, though, the basic gist of what’s happening in the movie is still pretty accurate. By that what I mean is that Robert worked on his invention at his home and poured everything he had into it.

Not only him, but his entire family was swept up by it.

Robert’s wife, who really is named Phyllis, recalled that any time it rained everyone in the family would stop whatever they were doing and go for a drive just so they could test the wipers.

Finally, he was ready to take it to a car manufacturer and demo his invention. Just like the movie shows, Ford was first on his list. According to the real Robert, he went to Ford first because they’d given him some wiper motors to experiment with and, all in all, he simply liked them the best.

But as we learned earlier, Gil Previck is a fictional character, so obviously it wasn’t Gil who got Robert into Ford.

Now’s also a good time to mention the people in the movie at Ford aren’t real people. In particular I’m referring to the big boss guy at Ford, Macklin Tyler, as played by Mitch Pileggi and Frank Sertin, who’s played by Daniel Roebuck. Even the muscle of sorts for Ford, Charlie Defao, appears to be a fictional character. He’s played by Tim Kelleher in the film.

So if those were all fictional characters, who were the real people?

In truth it was Robert’s brother, Marty, who isn’t in the movie at all, who got Robert in at Ford. Marty was an engineer at Ford and connected Robert with a man named John Ciupak.

John was another engineer at Ford that Marty thought might be able to help Robert out. He seems to have a similar position to the one we see Daniel Roebuck’s character of Frank Sertin hold.

Even though the names were different, that first demonstration seems to have gone fairly similar to what we saw in the movie. Robert drove over his Ford Galaxie with his invention installed in it and demonstrated the intermittent wipers to John.

John, in turn, was impressed.

They set up another meeting with the executive engineer at Ford, Joe Neill. He’s probably closest to the character of Macklin Tyler that we saw in the movie. That meeting happened about three days later and, again, Joe was impressed with Robert’s invention.
If there’s a big difference between reality and the movie, it’s with how Robert kept Ford’s engineers from seeing the invention up close. While the real Robert was, like the movie shows, standoffish about letting the engineers at Ford see how his invention worked, he was also polite.

During this second demonstration, some of Ford’s engineers were able to take turns running the wipers to prove they worked. They poked under the hood of Robert’s car and even started asking a lot of questions about how it worked exactly.

Of course, when Robert showed Ford’s engineers his invention, he didn’t come out and tell them how his worked, but it’s probably safe to assume they were able to get quite a bit of information out of their poking, prodding and constant questioning.

They were especially interested because, as it turns out, Ford was already working on their own version of an intermittent wiper. In particular, it was something they offered on their 1965 Mercury brand and was a system that came from a company called Trico Products.

That system worked—but just barely. It wasn’t very well made and had plenty of design flaws that Ford’s engineers knew they’d have to find a better solution. But the point here is that the movie is correct in mentioning Ford’s existing interest in an intermittent wiper.

In the movie, there’s a moment where Mitch Pileggi’s version of Macklin Tyler asks Robert how much the unit price is for his new invention.

That’s something Joe Neill asked the real Robert Kearns near the end of this second demonstration. Just like we saw in the movie, this put Robert over the moon. It meant Ford was interested.

Going back to the movie, this excitement changes once Robert sees a car drive by one rainy day. The car has windshield wipers, as all cars did, but this one had more than that—it had intermittent wipers. It was a Ford with intermittent wipers. Did they steal his invention?

The gist of the story is correct here, but not how it happened. And again, the movie doesn’t mention any sort of timeline.

It was in October of 1963 when Robert Kearns met with Ford for the first time to demonstrate his invention. Then after the second meeting, which was just a few days after the first, Joe Neill sent Robert away with the task of running the wipers for three million intervals to ensure it could withstand long-term usage.

That’s when Robert bought the aquarium—something the movie shows, but earlier on—and set up his wiper system in the aquarium. Then for months he just let it run. He’d keep an eye on it, or if he had to leave the house, Phyllis would keep an eye on it. Or if it wasn’t Robert or Phyllis, it was one of their children. Just like the movie shows, Robert had wanted to involve his kids in what he assumed would be the company business.

Throughout the tests, Robert would rebuild components and continually tweak his invention.

It was about a year later, on November 16th, 1964, when the wipers finally completed their test. It had run 3.4 million times—Robert let it run an extra few hundred thousand times just to be sure.

That’s when Robert reached back out to Ford who, to Robert’s surprise, seemed to have lost interest.

After all this time of testing his wipers and the costs associated with it, Robert was starting to get desperate for money. He was working, as the movie shows, as a professor, but he had to feed his family and any extra money they had went to buying components for his wipers. That proved a problem because Robert had intended on getting patents for his invention, and those aren’t free.

Since money from Ford didn’t seem to be coming any time soon, Robert turned to a friend of his named Dave Tann. If there’s anyone who might be the real Gil Previck, it’d probably be Dave Tann. Dave’s family had taken over Robert’s father’s business and had grown it into a decent manufacturing company. Being in Detroit and in manufacturing, Tann Corporation made a lot of car parts.

After seeing Robert’s invention, Dave was so impressed he agreed to help finance it. In exchange for rights to the wiper, Dave paid for the patents, $1,000 a month in R&D costs and sent Robert home with $12,000 in cash.

Robert’s first patent was filed in December of 1964 and granted in November of 1967. Soon after, Robert went to Ford to offer a demonstration with a different group—the team in charge of wipers for Ford. They were so impressed with Robert’s wipers that they announced, similar to what we saw in the movie, that Robert had won the wiper competition! They were going to use his wipers in their Mercury line for the 1969 models.

Another key point the movie shows that actually happened was when the wiper team at Ford told Robert that they needed to get full disclosure of the engineering behind the wipers so they could get it through legal. After all, wipers are a safety item on a car and the law has certain requirements.

Still oblivious to what was to come, Robert thought this sounded reasonable and finally explained how his intermittent wipers worked.

Oddly enough, a few months later, Robert Kearns was notified that Ford didn’t want his wipers anymore. Their engineers had figured out a solution so they wouldn’t be needing his system.

Sure enough, in 1969, Ford’s brand new intermittent windshield wipers rolled out. And sure enough, it used the exact same configuration that Robert Kearns had designed.

Back in the movie, the next major plot point happens when Robert starts to use those patents. Ignoring multiple settlements out of court, Robert sues Ford for stealing his invention and takes them to court.

The movie makes it seem like Robert’s lawsuit wasn’t really about the money as much as it was about proving a point that Ford stole his invention.

That is true.

But the lawsuit wasn’t fast. It didn’t happen overnight.

Robert dumped everything he had into the lawsuit. Every single penny. Every moment of time. There’d be paperwork stacked up around the home. Countless documents and legal papers to sift through.

Fortunately, Robert didn’t have to do it alone. His family pitched in, very much like we saw in the movie. Phyllis and his six children all helped out, essentially learning how to become lawyers as they went along.

Probably the biggest inaccuracy as far as the movie is concerned is when it shows that Robert didn’t have any lawyers when he took Ford to court. That’s not true—at least not for the Ford case.

But it did cost Robert Kearns his marriage to Phyllis, like the movie shows. She left Robert in 1980 due to all of the stress of the lawsuit. Simply put, she just couldn’t take it anymore. The obsession.

As the movie comes to a close, we find the result of the case.

By now it’s probably not too surprising that the movie doesn’t really mention much about the timeline. At one point there’s a mention of it being four years later, but then again in the court room we see the jury go off to deliberate and then come back seemingly in no time with their verdict.

In truth, the case that began in 1978 finally got saw a conclusion in 1990 when, after a three week trial followed by another week for the jury to deliberate, a verdict was rendered. It was very much what we saw in the movie. Ford was found to have infringed on Robert’s patents and was ordered to pay $10.1 million dollars.

Not the $30 million settlement Ford had offered out of court, but it was about more than money to Robert. As he said once, if he had accepted the money from Ford it would’ve been the same as admitting it was OK for them to do what they did. And he wasn’t OK with that.

At the very end of the movie, there’s some text that then mentions Robert went on to sue Chrysler and get an additional $18.7 million from them for infringing on his patents as well.

That is also true, but there’s more to the story than that.

You see, the Chrysler lawsuit overlapped the Ford lawsuit. While the Ford case lasted from 1978 to 1990, Robert’s case against Chrysler started in 1982 and lasted for a decade, finally resulting in the courts ordering Chrysler to pay him $18.7 million in 1992. That’s $18.7 million with interest, by the way. So according to some sources, that totaled about $30 million.

But that didn’t stop Robert. Now a millionaire, Robert went right back to work in his largely unfurnished apartment surrounded by legal paperwork. He’d go on to sue other car manufacturers like General Motors and Mercedes, but his strategy of being his own lawyer with his family became a little overwhelming and resulted in his missing the deadlines to file the necessary paperwork. So those cases were dismissed.

After all of this, Robert was quoted in one interview with simply saying he just wanted to make windshield wipers. All of the lawsuits are just to stop others from manufacturing his wipers so he could make them himself. Sadly, the lawsuits were so time consuming that he never got the chance to turn to manufacturing.

On February 9th, 2005, Robert Kearns passed away from cancer. He was 77.

Less than four months after Robert’s passing, Philip Railsback also passed away. We haven’t talked about Philip at all throughout this episode, but he played a very important role in our story because he was the man who adapted John Seabrook’s article from The New Yorker into the screenplay for the film we’ve been covering today.

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