Flash of Genius

My latest Netflix movie was Flash of Genius, a dramatization of the life of Robert Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper (I know, I know…we can discuss my penchant for obscure movies another day). I wasn’t sure how the movie would go. From a movie perspective, it moved pretty slow. We’ll just say that I could fold laundry while watching it and that I didn’t miss much while doing so.

However, the core theme of the movie is still rolling around in my mind. Kearns was a college inventor who figured out how to make windshield wipers pause between passes and operate with varying speed. Apparently, the major car companies had been working on trying to invent this type of wiper for some time without developing a solid marketable product. To make a long story short, Kearns took his invention to Ford, who wheedled his prototype away from him, scalped the tech info they needed from it, and then promptly dismissed Kearns. He then saw Ford marketing their brand new Mustang with intermittent, variable speed wipers.

Kearns then doggedly pursued acknowledgement from Ford that they stole his invention. For him, the fight wasn’t about the money. Ford at one point offered him a thirty million dollar settlement that he turned down. Kearns was so dogged in his pursuit of the admission from Ford that he was admitted to a mental hospital, lost his job as a professor, and let his wife walk away. Eventually, he does successfully take Ford to court, and he does win. But, I just can’t get over the thought that he didn’treally win, not the battle that counted the most at least.

In the end, Kearns’ son is his co-council as he brings his case against Ford, and the movie shows that his other children help him with his case as well. This is after he’s moved out of the house though and missed their swim meets, their high school years, basically them growing up. And, once he wins the case, it’s too late to get his wife back.

While I’m certain that God puts a calling on our lives, and I’m equally certain that He wants us to work hard at what we do so we can reflect glory back to him, I still feel that Kearns’ story is a cautionary tale. I can’t get inside his head and haven’t read up on him outside the movie, so I can’t say for sure what happened. However, the way the movie tells it, Kearns wound up getting caught in a trap that’s easy to get caught in. It snags some people for a moment before they wiggle free, and for some people like Kearns, the trap grabs them, and they either never get out or they get out when it’s too late to go back to what they had. The trap is a focus on one thing, one achievement, one aspect of life that we believe defines us. Undoubtedly, Kearns had a great invention, and if the movie rendition is true, he got ripped off big time by Ford. I’m not saying that wouldn’t sting or make me want to throw my fist through a few walls (if that was how I processed anger). But, the bottom line is that he got so wrapped up in defending and pursuing the fruition of that one achievement that he let everything else go — his job where he had influence, his family, even his grip on reality. I firmly believe we all, including myself, seek significance in something. That’s why I think I still find the movie haunting. Finding a faulty foundation for his significance cost Kearns more than he ever seemed to gain even when he’d technically won his battle.