Friday, August 20, 2010

Flash of Genius

"Flash of Genius" (Marc Abraham, 2008) The things we take for granted.

Everyday things.  Post-it Notes.  I've made thousands of notations on them.  Little scraps of paper that have contained scribbled things of importance, however temporary, that they should be kept, stuck—squirrelled away—and when no longer needed, when they are  transferred or kept in a more permanent record, are discarded without heed.  How many Post-it Notes have I thrown away?  I probably couldn't count how many.

But the man who invented the Post-it Note—his name is Art Fry—was an employee of the 3-M Corporation, and when that particular entry in the office supply/stationary field produced them millions in profits, the corporation awarded the team its "Golden Step" Award, a "gold watch" of recognition.

At least, he got an award.*  Dr. Robert Kearns merely got screwed. 

Portrayed by Greg Kinnear (in a muted "odd-duck" fashion), Kearns was the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper that you (if it's an option in your car) can adjust to the precise rhythm to whisk away the occluding inclement weather in varying conditions from light mist to "pissing down."

It's a small luxury—probably not worth having in a car—but, it's nice to have when you don't need the wipers much.  Just a "smoosh" every ten seconds or so is good enough to keep the visibility clear and to keep you on the road, as opposed to having the constant "thwop-thwop" unnecessarily, or (God forbid!) just turning the wipers on once, yourself, to go the trick.

But, it was a big deal to car companies who were trying to develop the idea, but couldn't hack it.  Kearns patented his solution in 1964 and shopped it around the Big 3 car companies, only to find dismissive attitudes...until Ford saw it work.  A tentative deal was struck with Ford, who requested specs so they could do testing to meet national safety requirements, and subsequently, Kearns research was turned over to the car company.

At which point, they said, "Thanks but no thanks!"  And Kearns' fledgling "blinking eye" wiper manufacturing dream was scraped aside.  That ended that.

That is, until Ford came out with an intermittent wiper blade in 1969, followed soon by other car manufacturers.  Smelling an 8-cylinder rat, Kearns began researching and subsequently sued Ford for patent infringement.  The travails on Kearns' psyche and home-life (and any subsequent work from his home-town car manufacturers in Detroit) are well-documented in "Flash of Genius," though the facts are hedged a bit—the landmark Ford suit was not argued by Kearns himself as portrayed in the film and a settlement was reached, and it was the subsequent Chrysler law-suit that Kearns, with the aid of his children, argued themselves in court.

Still, it's a suitable David vs. Goliath story, of the little guy taking on The Big Dogs and emerging chewed but triumphant, achieving his goals, but—bucking the trend of most Hollywood happy endings—not achieving his heart's desires.

Good intention that, but it subsequently leaves the film feeling a little hollow, like the somewhat cold camera set-ups that Abraham and cinematographer Dante Spinotti use to portray the halls and spaces inhabited by Kearns' nemeses.

An interesting little film about a man who refused to be taken for granted.

Dr. Robert Kearns (1927-2005)

* And a better job in the company with presumably higher salary.

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