informa
/
3 MIN READ
Commentary

Greg Kinnear In 'Flash Of Genius,' Or How Inventors Always Get Screwed

No, it's not a movie about nothing -- it's the story of the intermittent windshield wiper! Who knew that Hollywood would bite on the very American theme of the lone inventor screwed by the big, bad corporation. In this flick, Greg Kinnear plays Robert Kearns, who invented the drizzle-defying wiper, but had to fight Ford and Chrysler for decades for credit and payment for his invention.
No, it's not a movie about nothing -- it's the story of the intermittent windshield wiper! Who knew that Hollywood would bite on the very American theme of the lone inventor screwed by the big, bad corporation. In this flick, Greg Kinnear plays Robert Kearns, who invented the drizzle-defying wiper, but had to fight Ford and Chrysler for decades for credit and payment for his invention.The thing about lone battles like this is that usually, when you win, you also lose. Take Kearns, who eventually got (grudging) credit and $30 million ($10 from Ford, $20 from Chrysler), but suffered a nervous breakdown and was divorced by his wife.

The canonical case, of course, is that of Edwin Howard Armstrong, the uber-electrical genius who invented just about everything upon which modern radio is based. Most famously, he conceived FM as a static-free alternative to amplitude modulation. But he also patented the regenerative, superheterodyne, and superregenerative receivers. (That middle one has been the basis for all modern radios, starting with the famous "all-American 5" vacuum-tube receiver of the 1930s, through to the integrated-circuit models of the present day.)

BTW, if you don't know about Armstrong, you should read Lawrence Lessing's (he's not the Internet Lessig) 1956 biography, "Man of High Fidelity." The book is sadly out of print (old paperback copies are selling for $25.00 on Amazon). Fortunately, though, the complete text of the book has been posted here by the Internet Archive. (Who holds the copyright, I wonder?)

Anyway, if you think American technological prowess begins and ends with the Mac and iPhone, you owe it to yourself to read this tale of a true genius struggling against those out to steal the fruits of his brilliance. In Armstrong's case, his nemesis was RCA impresario David Sarnoff. Here, unlike with Kearns and Ford/Chrysler, the hero/villain dichotomy is a little less clear, because Sarnoff also was a genius in his own right, who paved a mass market for radio, media networks (NBC), and color TV. (You can think of him as a kind of Steve Jobs of the pre-computer age.)

RCA -- along with Westinghouse and a host of other companies -- infringed Amstrong's patents for years. He was less lucky than Kearns, though. He committed suicide by walking out of a hotel window in 1954. (See Zero Mostel in Woody Allen's 1976 film, "The Front," for an affecting turn along these same lines.) Armstrong's vindication came only after his death, when his widow continued to pursue -- and eventually won -- his patent cases.

OK, so my final thought here is not how inventor screwings are bad and should never happen again. (They are bad, of course, but that's the way the world works.) The point I want to make is that people who think modern technology sprung fully realized in some easy and fun way from the landscaped corporate vistas of Silicon Valley don't know squat. Every development from Maxwell, Edison, and Tesla; up through Marconi and De Forest; to Eckert, Mauchly and the present day has not come without a humongous struggle. (For another great tale of inventor screwing -- tellingly, also involving RCA -- read Tube: The Invention of Television by David Fisher, about the travails of Philo Farnsworth.)

I'm often put off by people who think that the PC and microprocessor were the crowning technological achievements of the 20th century. No, they weren't. Radio and television were much harder nuts to crack. Think about that the next time the rain is coming down medium-hard and you're fiddling with your intermittent wiper.

(The "Flash of Genius" movie Web site is here.)

What ideas are you scribbling on cocktail napkins? Leave a comment below, or shoot me an e-mail directly at [email protected].

Like this blog? Subscribe to its RSS feed, here.

For a mobile experience, follow my daily observations on Twitter.

Check out my tech videos on this YouTube channel.

Editor's Choice
Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer