For Robert W. Kearns, mechanical engineering has been a lifelong passion. He holds 35 patents in disciplines from guided missile navigational systems to automotive electronics.
Yet, the 62-year-old basement inventor with a doctorate in engineering says he has never made a dime from any of them.
That may change in November when Kearns goes to the U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan
against Ford Motor Co., which he says stole one of his most successful commercial inventions -- intermittent windshield wipers.
Kearns, who now resides in Gaithersburg, Md., began suits in 1978 against virtually every foreign and domestic automaker, charging infringing on his windshield wiper patents.
He has refused settlements from many of them and is seeking $50 for every vehicle produced with intermittent wipers going back to 1972. A favorable judgment could net him billions.
"There have been attempts to settle but the offers have been totally inadequate," said his attorney, Bill Durkee of Houston.
Until several months ago, the lawsuits were consolidated into one, but U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn ruled that was too unwieldly. He picked Ford Motor Co. as the bellwether to begin disposal.
For Kearns, that was a logical choice. In 1963, he showed Ford a year-old Galaxie on which he had installed electronic-based intermittent wipers.
Ford told him it was working on its own version of pneumatic-based intermittent wipers. A year later, says Kearns, Ford again asked to see his invention.
Kearns says he got the idea for a "windshield wiper that blinks" after losing the sight in one eye.
"You begin focusing on your eyes when you've been blinded," he said. "Your eyelids blink. I developed controls that make windshield wipers blink."
Kearns says the automakers seized upon an incident involving him to delay trial of the lawsuits.
In 1983, Kearns asked for a summary judgment and produced some highly confidential documents obtained from lawyers representing Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and another German automotive company. Some of them discussed the validity of Kearns' patents.
But his son, Dennis, received them illegally from a paralegal he dated for eight months who worked for the defense counsel's law firm.
A federal judge ruled against Kearns, fined him $10,000 and awarded attorney fees to the defendants for his actions.
As a result, many of the records are suppressed by the court. Durkee said he and his client also are under a gag order not to discusscertain aspects of the case.
The last of the seven patents Kearns held on intermittent wipers expired in 1988. Still, Durkee says his client is entitled to royalties for the years of alleged infringement.
Six of the patents are involved in the Ford litigation. "Ford may have patents on intermittent wipers, but they don't cover what is being used commercially," said Durkee.
Ford declined to comment in advance of the trial.
Kearns said there has been an emotional toll on him and his family. At one point, he had a nervous breakdown. And Durkee is not the first attorney to handle the suit.
With a divorce pending, Kearns spends much of his time in Houston working on the lawsuit.
"I was 35 years old when it started," he said. "I had stars in my eyes. I wanted to be the owner of a small plant ... employ people and contribute to the economy."
He still wants to be a supplier to the automakers. "I devoted my life to this," he said.
Kearns also has hopes of changing patent law to better protect inventors.
"If I settled with the automakers, there would be no advance in the law," he said.
He wants courts to have the power to extend patents if holders are involved in lengthy litigation but have pursued patent-infringements diligently.
"A patent is presumed valid when an inventor gets it," he said. "Then the inventor has to go to court, and the process takes a lot of years without a decision on whether it is valid.
"One arm of the government gives you a piece of paper but before the judicial system decides if it is valid, it expires and the government takes it away."
Critics also ask why it took him so long to file the lawsuits. Said Durkee: "It's hard on an individual going up against a big company. He was trying to get a supply contract. He went around for years showing his designs, and litigation is expensive. It just took a while."