An engineer named Robert Kearns filed a patent application for his invention of the intermittent windshield wiper on December 1, 1964. His subsequent struggle with the auto industry over patent infringement was the subject of the 2008 movie, “Flash of Genius.” His Wikipedia biography credits his inspiration to an event in 1963, when he became irritated with the constant motion of his windshield wipers in a light rain. It occurred to him that the eyelid does not blink continuously, but once every few seconds. Why, he wondered, couldn’t a windshield wiper do that?
If he had asked me as early as the Spring of 1963, I could have told him that it could…and I could have shown him the intermittent wiper on my Triumph TR4. Let me assure you, it was not a standard feature on the TR4. The circuitry that controlled the wiper system was contained in a small aluminum box screwed to the bottom of the TR4’s dashboard. A knob protruding from the end of the box allowed me to adjust the interval between wipes with a simple twist. It was “invented,” not by Kearns, but by Bart Laney, one of my engineering colleagues at Wheaton Engineering, Inc., in Wheaton, Illinois.
Wheaton Engineering was a pioneer in precision electronic timing and sensing devices. And “precision” meant that a timer would be accurate within 2% over a temperature range from -55° C to 225° C. Our timers went into factories, ships, airplanes, and space capsules.
Since one of the most common purposes of a timer is to make something happen over and over again at a fixed interval, and since smeary windshields are a common experience, it didn’t require rocket science to connect one of our timers to a windshield wiper. At the time, the most sophisticated wiper system had two-speed motors. Bart’s car had one of those, as did the cars of most of the other engineers. My TR4, on the other hand, had a single-speed wiper. A simple timer required a simple motor. The TR4 became the default guinea pig.
What a wonderful invention. People were amazed by the simplicity of the solution; the elegance of its functioning. That aluminum box stayed in the TR4 and became a selling point when I had to get a bigger vehicle several years later (my first Mustang, as it turns out).
When I saw the trailers for the Kearns movie, I thought about Bart Laney and all the other engineers in the world who solve nagging problems with simple solutions and never think to patent their work, because it was so simple to do. I don’t think he would want a movie made about him, but I want the world to know that Bart Laney built the first intermittent windshield wiper.