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WETZSTEIN: Genius takes its toll

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When I first saw the trailer for the movie "Flash of Genius," I instantly knew it was about Robert Kearns, the man who invented the intermittent windshield wiper, had it stolen from him by the auto industry and fought back.

This movie interests me for three reasons.

First, I grew up around Detroit and remember the love-hate relationship adults seemed to have with the automotive industry. Our neighborhoods lived and breathed Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, etc. We built fabulous freeways and traveled in style. But there were always struggles over labor and supplies, marketing and sales. We all knew of connivers in the business.

My second interest in "Flash of Genius" is that I interviewed Mr. Kearns in 1990 when one of his many theft-of-invention lawsuits was heating up. I don't have my interview notes anymore, but I remember talking with him at least once while he was living in a Maryland campground.

I remember being struck by Mr. Kearns' single-mindedness. More than two decades after he brought his wiper invention to Ford Motor Co., he still wanted to turn back the clock so he could get what he wanted.

I listened to his many grievances and his plans for the future - which included successfully suing the world's automakers, making millions in judgments, and then forcing them to start buying all their intermittent windshield wipers from him.

I tried to challenge Mr. Kearns' plans, as they were clearly grandiose. But this genius of a man shooed away my questions as if they were absurd. Nothing was going to budge him from his master plan, even though there was not a sliver of hope he would accomplish it.

My third interest is that he lost his family over this quixotic quest.

The movie doesn't exactly gloss over the breakdown of his marriage and family, but its clear focus is Mr. Kearns' David-and-Goliath battle - or, more honestly, his Pyrrhic victory.

Yes, he was eventually awarded millions, but most of the money went to lawyers.

I happened to meet and talk with one of his children in the 1980s, and I can recall her speaking with sorrow about the meltdown of their family. It's clear that, for his family, his great invention turned into a monstrous curse, as it consumed him and robbed them of their husband and father.

Bob Kearns died in 2005 at age 77. A Washington Post obituary said he was living on the Eastern Shore and called his six children "from time to time" to talk about reviving his long-expired patents.

The obit also quoted Mr. Kearns' ex-wife, Phyllis, about the end of their 36-year marriage. "I told him, 'I can't stand this life,' " she said. "He said, 'This is my life.' "

"Flash of Genuis" is both a tribute to Mr. Kearns - and a reminder that it is folly to give unscrupulous people full access to your amazing invention and not get business deals in writing.

I would add that this story holds lessons about the deadliness of pride and arrogance and false idols of fame and fortune. The automotive industry did Mr. Kearns an injustice of enormous proportions. But when he threw over his family to chase his dream, he multiplied the evil.

May he at last rest in peace.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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