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Flash of Genius (2008)
Corporations have time, money, and power on their side. All Bob Kearns had was the truth.
Filmmaker(s): Marc Abraham

In this David vs. Goliath drama based on a true story, college professor Robert Kearns goes up against the giants of the auto industry when they fail to give him credit for inventing intermittent windshield wipers. Kearns doggedly pursues recognition for his invention, as well as the much-deserved financial rewards for the sake of his wife and six kids.

Flash of Genius (2008)


There are all sorts of fabulous interminglings between film and life. At a general level, I study these things.

But when “life” is meant in the sense of historical truth, and the film purports to represent that, then the examination gets a bits boring. Okay, so we have a movie where Napoleon went somewhere that we know he did not; does it matter? Sometimes we take “life” as fictitious life, so when Heathcliff does something not in Bronte’s words we rebel.

Well, here we have an ordinary movie: a triumph of the will of a little guy who earns the justice he deserves. Superficially, we follow along dutifully. We have the requisite big bad corporation who serves as the life-smashing inevitable. It plods along and we are released into the light with a relatively poor feel-good movie. Okay. Another way to fill an empty life.

But the problem that this movie has, is that it is about innovation. That sets it apart from the similarly offensive “Erin Brockovich” and “The Insider.”

Here is the story. I will tell you so you do not have to see the movie. College professor and mechanical engineer in Detroit gets an idea for what we now call an intermittent windshield wiper. Ford steals his idea and he toils through court at substantial and gets a huge reward.

One problem with this story is that it is not true, not the facts anyway. He did make an electrically controlled windshield wiper which allowed intermittence and several speed settings. The second of these was what he originally thought was useful. At the time, all wipers were driven by the vacuum created by the engine and were not controllable. Small electric motors were common but just becoming feasible from a cost and reliability perspective.

Ford had working electric wipers for decades before. Everyone did. Once you do that, many sorts of speed and frequency issues are manageable. I know of a project that was to coordinate the wipers with the beat of the music over your radio. The radio, by the way was the reason for modernising the electrical system in cars so they could shift many controls over that way.

What Kearns did was what had already been done before and documented. Moreover, it was trivial. He submitted a patent which was granted and then several subsequent ones. These were granted too, since the patent examiner did not have access to internal documents from the car companies. When shown copious documentation, the patents were revoked. Kearns soldiered on, delusional. What paid off what that delusion. The real story was not that goodness was rewarded, but that nuisanced craziness was.

Which brings us to the reflective part of the comment: the movie is like the event. It pretends to be useful, novel and true, presents itself as worthy. But it is fake, derivative, a copy, a theft from something done somewhere by someone who really did invent.

Don’t reward this nuisance by watching it.

Posted in 2009

Ted’s Evaluation — 1 of 3: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.


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