Wiper Madness


My father-in-law’s name is Carl. He says that he rarely sees a TV or film character named Carl, and, when he does see one, it’s usually the butler.

My husband has made a similar observation about his own name. Whenever you see a Craig character, he is usually (a) nerdy (b) fairly annoying or (c) a back-stabbing preppy jerk.

Watching the movie Flash of Genius, a movie based on the true story of Bob Kearns, the Michigan engineering professor who spent years of his life alleging that the automobile industry stole his original design for the intermittent wiper, I wondered whether one can say something similar about film portrayals of scientists and engineers: the stereotype seems to be that sure, they’re clever and all, but there’s a point at which one’s techno IQ climbs just a little too high for social acceptability.

In the movie, Kearns, played by Greg Kinnear, comes off as cute, then compulsive, then kind of cuckoo as he experiences the highs of discovery and invention, then the lows of betrayal and disillusionment with an industry who capitalizes without compensation on the industriousness of the little guy. It’s hard to believe that someone went through all Kearns experienced, and even harder to believe that Kearns himself may have been a more intense individual than Kinnear’s portrayal suggests.

Watching the film, I had several questions. First, why isn’t Greg Kinnear in every movie? Second, was the circuit design for the original intermittent wiper so complicated that it really stumped the entire car industry? Third, where else besides the film Real Genius is a scientist or engineer portrayed as remotely cool (maybe in October Sky, Apollo 13, or much of space cinema?) and not crazy (as in A Beautiful Mind)? Related to that, what other example of onscreen soldering can you think of? Finally, if my brother-in-law right, that wiper speed directly correlates with driver stress, how stressed out would Americans be without good old intermittent wipers?

Whether or not you’re a scientist (or a scientist-lover), you’ll probably find the movie’s “at what price” questions compelling. Is financial compensation worth more than credit for one’s idea? Is it better to have one’s day in court than to have a good relationship with one’s family? Is a one-man fight against corporate greed so hopeless and overwhelming that it may not be worth fighting?

Whatever your answers, next time you use those intermittent wipers, remember: you have Robert Kearns, however tech-headed, hyper-focused, and flawed an individual he may have been, to thank.


  1. Monica said,

    September 10, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    A little late with my comment, but here goes. 🙂 I’ve had problems with my wipers for the past month or so. I’ve had to go to the dealer garage twice now for them to be fixed. It started after going to a carwash and they got stuck on each other. The timing was off (not sure how that all works, but anyway) and after getting it fixed and a new blade (since the old one got bent), I had to go again the other day for the same problem. Not having seen the movie, can you help explain the timing problem?
    Hopelessly wiped out in Dover

    • scheirmad said,

      September 10, 2009 at 4:16 pm

      Dear HWOID:

      Can’t help you there. In the movie, it took Detroit’s greatest minds YEARS to develop the intermittent wiper technology. I can’t imagine my puny intellect could understand it. On the other hand, my techie dad says that the schematics for intermittent wipers have been out since the 60’s. If you’re going DIY and need any soldering flux feel free to give us a call!

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