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Flash of Genius – A Tale of Two Outcomes

Nikola Tesla, inventor of the radio, said, “I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success…  Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love, everything.”   —from the “Flash of Genius” movie website.

“Flash of Genius” is based on the true story of engineering professor and part time inventor Robert Kearns, who invented the intermittent windshield wiper only to have Ford, and then Chrysler steal his design and refuse to credit him for inventing it.  Figuring the film couldn’t possibly be banking on drawing windshield wiper lovers alone, I had a hunch the invention itself would be incidental to a greater story.

Guess what.  It was.

How far would you go to protect your intellectual property?  How strongly would you insist that credit be given where credit is due—especially by those who are benefiting from your invention?  What are you to do when you’re in a battle contending for what is right while your personal world crumbles around you?  “Flash of Genius” raises these questions and then gives us one man’s answers.

The title comes from an old U.S. patent law which said that in order to be granted a patent, the inventor had to be able to show that “the inventive act had to come into the mind in a ‘flash of genius’ and not as a result of tinkering.” (“Flash of Genius,” wikipedia) For Bob Kearns, his flash of genius for the intermittent windshield wiper came on his wedding night when he hit himself in the eye with a champagne cork, and got to thinking about how the eye blinks only when it needs moisture, and then later, while driving in the rain, wondered what if there was a windsheild wiper that could behave like the human eye.

[SPOILER ALERT, KIND OF:]  There is a powerful courtroom scene where the defense, Ford Motor Company, calls an engineer to the stand to testify that Kearns didn’t really invent the intermittent windshield wiper because he didn’t create anything you couldn’t buy at your local electronics store.  All he did, the engineer explains, was arrange those basic over-the-counter pieces in a particular order.

In his cross examination, Kearns produces a copy of Dicken’s “Tale of Two Cities,” reads the opening sentence “They were the best of times.  They were the worst of times…” and then goes word by word through that sentence asking the engineer if Dickens created any of those words.

No, all he did was arrange them.

So can Dickens really expect to take credit for writing that book?  Kearns goes on to say this is usually the essence of the creative process, of invention—taking the pieces we have available to us at the time and arranging them in a unique and effective way so as the create something new.

This scene made my heart swell with emotion.  I love words.  And I love their power when arranged well.  And to hear Kearns make this point in the film reminded me again that the work of inventing or creating art is such a spiritual endeavour—taking simple words made up of simple letters and arranging them in such a way as to stir the heart of another person.  That, my friends, is evidence that we are so much more than organic tissue matter.

With regards to this part of the story, I thought the content on invention and how the creative process was recognized by the patent office was fascinating.  Anyone who creates or invents will find this engaging as well, I think.

I’m not going to say “Flash of Genius” is a perfect film.  It isn’t.  It’s kind of slow.  But you don’t watch a movie like this in hopes of seeing action.  You watch for the story, and with regards to this film, you get two stories with two outcomes for the price of one—the story of Bob Kearns’ legal wrangling over his right to credit and compensation for the wiper, and the demolition of his marriage in the process.  That first story is the obvious one, the second is told between the lines, and then hauntingly by a look on Bob’s face just before the credits begin to roll.

I bring this film to the Rabbit Room table because I know a lot of the readers and contributors of this blog make their living by drawing an income from intellectual property—stuff they thought up.  And we’ve had a lot of conversations here about the artist’s right to compensation.  This film adds another dimension to the discussion– the artist’s obligations to the peole in his or her life.

Much has been made over the past decade or so about illegally obtaining someone’s intellectual property on the internet (usually relating to music and film) without acknowledging or compensating them for it.  It is a new form of stealing, essentially having the same impact on an artist as if you stole their CD from the shelves at Best Buy and somehow made it past the usually hulking dude with the ear piece standing at the door trying to make eye contact with you to determine your guilt or innocence.  This story is about a wrong being done to someone by someone else.

But what about the other story—the one where the artist, musician, writer, pastor, teacher, manager, clerk or name-your-vocation-here pursues their right to be recognized to the detriment and sometimes even destruction of their family, friendships, health, etc?  What about the carnage left in the wake of the one who will not stop their pursuit, even though it means they’re becoming a stranger to their spouse, kids, even to themselves?

This seems to be the whirlwind any of us could reap if we’re not careful.  We can get so engrossed in our craft that we see little else around us, even the people we live with.  Meanwhile one marriage after another withers and dies in the process.  What about that part of the story.

There are several times in the film when Ford offers to settle with Kearns (and their offers are very substantial), but since none of those settlements include giving him credit for his invention, he turns them down flat.  But his family is thinking that beside the obvious financial windfall, if they took the settlement they would be able to move on with their lives.

Bob cannot do this.  And his reason is that what Ford is doing is just plain wrong.  He can’t let them get away with running roughshod over the little guy.  It is a clear matter of right and wrong, he explains.

And as he brings the fight to Ford while his family falls apart, we’re left to wonder which is the greater wrong?  What is the right thing for Kearns to do?  How do we live, work and love so that we don’t have to choose our vocation over our marriage or our ideals over our present committments?

These are the questions “Flash of Genius” raises, leaving them for the viewer to answer.  Thoughts?


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