Kearns was born in 1927 in Gary, Ind., and grew up in the Detroit suburb of River Rouge. He was drafted into the U.S. Army after high school and during World War II was a member of the Office of Strategic Services, which later became the CIA. After the war, he earned engineering degrees from the University of Detroit and Wayne State University, also in Detroit, while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. He later worked for Burroughs Corp. in Detroit.
Kearns earned a doctorate in 1964 from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland before becoming an engineering professor at Wayne State.
He got the idea for the intermittent wipers in the 1950s after a champagne cork struck and injured his left eye on his honeymoon.
In an April 6, 1990, story in The Wall Street Journal, Joseph B. White wrote that the injury made Kearns "think about how his eyes worked and, specifically, how his eyes were periodically cleaned when he blinked. This observation sparked an idea: Why not develop windshield wipers that would 'blink,' too? That way, during light rain, the wipers would just occasionally clear the windshield."
Kearns and his wife had six children: Dennis, 54, a suburban Detroit private investigator who helped his dad with the lawsuits; Pat, 49, a Belleville, Mich., aircraft mechanic; Maureen, 44, of Detroit, co-founder of Inside Detroit, which does custom walking tours of the city; and Tim, 51; Kathy, 46; and Bob, 41, all of Maryland.
By 1962, the invention became a passion that Kearns worked on late into the night in the basement laboratory of his family home on Detroit's northwest side. He tinkered with the wipers on the family's Ford Galaxie 500 convertible.
"He would spend hours and hours down there, and he would explain to me what he was doing," Phyllis said. "That's when I started drinking coffee. He would ask me questions, and I had to know the answers."
In 1967, Kearns obtained a patent for his invention, Phyllis said. He encouraged a friend who was a supplier to Ford to try to sell his idea to the automaker.
As a Wayne State professor, Kearns gained an opportunity to show Ford engineers how the wipers worked.
"They called him in as a consultant," Phyllis said. "He was very idealistic. He thought it would be great if he could supply wipers to Ford. He thought it was the great American company, and he trusted them. He was very naive."
Said son Dennis: "Ford said it was interested. They said 'show us how they work, and we'll buy it.' But they did not buy the invention."
Dennis Kearns said his father was not paid for the consulting work on the wipers. "He did some consulting work for Ford later and was paid for that, but it was unrelated to the wipers," he said.
In 1969, intermittent windshield wipers first appeared on a Ford vehicle. "I remember some of the screaming and yelling" when Kearns found out, Phyllis said.