THE SUPREME COURT ON CREATIVITY

In 1953, Robert Kearns was getting married.
As he opened the champagne, the cork hit him in the eye.
For the rest of his life he was partially blind in that eye, and it always wept with tear fluid.
A year or so later, he was driving through a light drizzle.
He noticed the windscreen wipers only had one speed: on or off.
Either the wipers kept wiping even when the windscreen wasn’t wet.
Or he had to switch them on and off, as it needed wiping.
He thought about his bad eye.
It filled up with tear fluid, and he had to blink it away.
But he didn’t keep blinking all the time.
He needed wipers that worked the way his eyelid worked.
Only wipe when it’s wet.
So when he got home he set about inventing exactly that.
An intermittent windscreen wiper.
A wiper that could be adjusted to the amount of rain.
Wipe…..long pause……wipe……long pause……wipe…..long pause.
Just the way an eyelid works.
After ten years of experimenting, Kearns took his invention to Ford.
Between 1962 and 1965 he had several meetings with their engineers.
Then Ford stopped returning his calls.
And in 1969 they came out with their own version.
The first intermittent windscreen wiper on a production car.
Naturally, Robert Kearns sued Ford.
He was confident he would win because he had the patent.
But Ford were confident they would win because his design used only existing parts.
There wasn’t an original part in it.
And this, for us, is where it gets really interesting.
This is where we separate creativity from plagiarism.
The main test for an exclusive patent is called “non-obviousness”.
Does the ‘invention’ do any of the following 3 things:
1) Combine prior elements according to known methods to yield predictable results.
2) Simply substitute one known element for another to yield predictable results.
3) Apply a known technique to a known device to yield predictable results.
Ford said that Kearns had used only “known methods, known elements, and known devices” so his invention was not original.
But Kearns maintained that his device did not “yield predictable results” so it was original.
The United States Supreme Court agreed with Kearns.
Their ruling was as follows.
“It is idle to say that combinations of old elements cannot be inventions.
Substantially every invention is such a ‘combination’.
That is to say, it consists of former elements in a new assemblage.”
Ford had to pay Robert Kearns $30 million.
Later, Chrysler had to pay Robert Kearns $21 million.
Today every car uses his intermittent windscreen wiper system.
And the rule for creativity is now written into law.

There are no new ideas, just new combinations.

  • paul c-c

    Creativity has always been about influences & triggers, conscious or sub conscious. In its simplest form it’s called inspiration.

  • Peter Rufus

    Guess we need the courts to decide what should be obvious/ intuitive to us. Nevertheless, fantastic story. Thanks much.

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