Flash of Genius – A Tale of Two Outcomes

By

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_post.jpg“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.

  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?

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


8 Comments

  1. euphrony

    I work in the world of IP – but not in artistry. I’m like Robert Kearns – I’m an engineer, I write papers, do research, have a handful of patents with my name on it and more in the process. My daily work is the development of my companies IP – both in patentable material and in trade secrets. So here’s my couple of thoughts on this.

    Personally, I would not go so far as Kearns did to protect his invention. My work is just that: work. Family is much more important to me. Even were the battle over a deep moral issue I believe that I would have to bow down and tend to the work God first at home – a responsibility I chose and must uphold. An easy choice for me.

    Companies, in practice, usually don’t go to such extremes, either. For every patent, there are a dozen ways to get around it. New patents are often issued for minuscule changes to the “known art”; likewise patents are often issued based on claims that are unproven, unfounded, or impossible to prove in a lifetime of work. But, since the patent is there, companies quite often find it easier to pay nominal usage fees, skirt the patent, or outright trod on it. And the company holding the patent goes along because they know the patent would likely not survive a trial – not to mention the fact that they want to avoid big legal fees while fighting another big company.

    But when a company comes across the little guy, they will sometimes take advantage.

    It’s easy to dig in and fight for what you know is your right, your property. It’s hard to say that, even though an action is illegal, it should be winked at, accepted, and move on. Reality is hard, sometimes, and rarely fair. It takes courage to try to change the reality in a way that is good for both the artist and the listener – it sounds so wrong to say that, considering it means essentially legalizing an illegal act, but it accepts reality. People like Derek Webb, with NoiseTrade, are trying to do that and meet the audience where they can be found, and I think should be applauded. Change is hard, but there always seems to be a road ahead. People will always desire good music, for example, and if their illegal actions end up driving good artists out of business they will soon find a vacuum. Supply and demand, oddly enough, may in the long run correct this more that any legal action could hope to.

    Just a few rambling thoughts.

  2. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    I don’t mean to be contrary, but I disagree that in terms of music that supply and demand will save the day. And I, though I love Derek and respect him immensely, don’t like the idea of noisetrade’s model in that I think it can potentially foster the further devaluing of recorded music. I believe the law of physics, that everything degrades. I call it the Fall, though, and I see people’s cavalier disregard of piracy as evidence of the accumulation of sin.

    Thomas Paine has famously said that “what we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly”, and I find this to be the truth with music, and the music industry – made up of some good hard working people who love music – is hurting. Who isn’t hurting as much is corporate radio stations and the major pop stars who are able to turn piracy into concert promotion. These were always a part of the problem with music in the first place and they manage to come through a lot of this relatively unscathed. But it does hurt the niche artists, the smaller artists who were the pet projects of record companies who made enough money off of the superstars to be able to sustain them. We’re beginning to see less and less artists signed and though music will go on to be sure, all of this does and will continue to hurt the smaller artists. And my experience with free music, even what I get from Noisetrade, is that I put it in my itunes and then sometimes never listen to it. Music I buy, however, I listen to immediately because I’ve already invested in it.

    Maybe I’m old school, though… I still read liner notes and care about producers, players, and writers. The current music consumption paradigm only honors the consumer, it doesn’t honor the artists involved, from the singer to the 2nd engineer to the photographer.

    But I know we’re not really talking about piracy here, and this is a hill that nobody is willing to die on anymore because it’s uncool to ask consumers to pay for the music they enjoy.

    But here’s what I really wanted to submit: I have a thought that may or may not be relevant. What if we put this in the context of our ministry or vocation. As an artist/writer I spent years fighting for vaulted ideals of artistic integrity while ministry and vocational value increasingly took a backseat.

    Now I hate a Christian coffee shop that thinks it doesn’t have to make a great cup of coffee because they’re really all about “ministry”, but I have experienced in my own life times where I passionately pursued an artistic ideal for an imaginary audience (populated by my heroes, peers, critics, and myself) at the expense of a ministry ideal for the audience who were actually seated before me.

    I’m not advocating the cheapening or dumbing down of art, but rather marrying it to service, the idea of serving others – making it accessible and digestable to them. Is a great English teacher the one who reads the best literature to their students and in their ecstasy sometimes read right over their heads? Or is the great teacher the one who is aflame with their love of literature, and know how to share their love in a way that connects with their students so that they catch fire, too?

    So the tension I always feel is the war between my artistic idealistic self and the present commitments of the part of me that feels called to feed the sheep. Does anyone else feel this?

    I hope this doesn’t take us too far off course of the marriage question which is ultimately more important, but I thought I’d throw this in the ring.

  3. euphrony

    Jason,
    Maybe I’m a bit of a different animal. I understand your thoughts, and mostly agree with them, that the cheapening of the cost also leads to a cheapening of the quality and that people care less for what they don’t pay for. But, for me, I find myself still just as excited to listen to the stuff I get for free as I am what I pay for. Perhaps it is that I am still selective in what I get, listening to clips and samples, and seeing what others (whose opinions I respect) say about the music. I don’t know. I, too, still read the liner notes like crazy – I want to know who all went into the production of the music I’m listening.

    And I did say supply and demand may save the day. I can equally see it falling to the point where people just don’t what good music is. I don’t like that thought, though, so kind of hide from it as a possibility.

    Hope I didn’t strike to raw a nerve, Jason. When I talk about this subject I do talk as a fan and lover of music, not as the artist or the industry. Different opinions are only natural.

  4. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    Not at all, you’re post was just an opportunity to talk about some things that have been on my mind and weren’t intended to be directed at you. Thanks.

  5. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Jason wrote “I’m not advocating the cheapening or dumbing down of art, but rather marrying it to service, the idea of serving others – making it accessible and digestable to them. Is a great English teacher the one who reads the best literature to their students and in their ecstasy sometimes read right over their heads? Or is the great teacher the one who is aflame with their love of literature, and know how to share their love in a way that connects with their students so that they catch fire, too?”

    I love this thought, Jason! The whole discussion about the artist’s call to serve others is such a penetrating issue. So many young artists (and old ones too) engage their craft to “express themselves,” which is great. But if it isn’t intelligible, or better, open to at least some scrutiny from those interacting with it, has the artist really given anything of themselves?

    Pulling back to life in general, we’re here to serve and love one another well. Kearns, in the film, seems to miss this. And what’s so frustrating about it is that it isn’t as simple as “Bob just wants the glory for inventing the wiper.” It is much more insidious than that. He’s so devoted to his ideal that the company shouldn’t get away with their transgression that he pursues them to the end, even while it costs him the things in his life that are better than his ideal.

    I found the ending to be so sad because the relational losses Kearns suffered were of such a greater value than the money the courts awarded him. And I wonder if he knew it. Or if the film-makers know that.

  6. S.D. Smith

    OK, as I read down, I was going to comment on Jason’s service idea, and then Russ beat me to it.

    Wonderful words, Jason. I think this idea of service will help derail the artist’s frequently intrinsic snobbery, and connect him to those who love and appreciate him and his work. I think this needs to be added to the conversations we all have (to be sure) about art and industry, “purity” and accessibility. Sometimes when artists get really focused on their art (sometimes absurdly equating it with special revelation) they can become selfish, detached and arrogant.

    I love the idea of focusing on service. And if we want to serve people, our neighbors, we must be interested in more than simply giving them just what they want, but also what is good for them. Without patronizing. But do Christian women need to read more sentimental, fluffy “romance” novels that are often the equivalent of what men struggle with in pornography? Is that service, or is it exploitation? What about a lot of “Praise and Worship” music and “Christian” fiction in general? Is it what people want? Yes. Is it good, or good for us? Umm….

    This is a fascinating topic, I think. Thanks Russ, as always, it’s terrific. And thanks Jason for your insight.

  7. whipple

    “…we must be interested in more than simply giving them just what they want, but also what is good for them. Without patronizing.”

    I really like this idea. My mom asked me the other day why I wanted to study a dead language. I finally figured out the answer: because all the words mean so much more than common English.

    I’m also a big fan of words – delicious, precise, and evocative words. A part of being redemptive is to redeem these important little glue spots that seem to hold everything together, from covenants and constitutions to creation itself, spoken into existence. It doesn’t seem too esoterically highbrow to use words or meanings that are archaic in order to entreat your audience to remember them and be quickened by them. I love that Rich Mullins, in “You Did Not Have a Home” said “…and you rode an ass’s foal” instead of “donkey’s foal,” even though, in the oversimplified Celebration Hymnal, which was the last hymnal I know of before everybody went “Powerpoint,” you wouldn’t come near the word “ass,” even though it was in some of the older hymnals and was quite well understood.

    This idea of leading your audience on into broader, loftier lands might translate more easily in media like film and novels than in more abstract endeavors like painting, poetry, and sometimes songs.

  8. Tony Heringer

    [Spoiler Alert: Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the film]
    ..
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    Russ,

    I finally got to this film over the week-end. What a tragic story. I cheered when he won the case, but even before the final scene I was hurting for him and his family. I’m sure you’ve run across this as a pastor, there are folks who want to be right at the expense of being righteous.

    There is the right thing – in this case Kearns patent claim over Ford. Then there is the righteous thing – Kearns being the loving leader of his home taking precedence over his pursuit for justice against Ford. It’s interesting how the film opens in church. Kearns is an usher and I’d assume an officer (deacon?). I’ve seen people implode their families because of theological constructs; much like the Pharisees not understanding the words “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

    In Kearns case, he wanted justice to be served and he wanted it no matter the cost. This was made more tragic because of the way he involved his family in the invention of the device. The film makers were a little tidy in the way the kids came back to help him. But, I think it would have been very dark to see the personal strife that would likely occur in real life had they not included some support for the man. I had similar feelings while watching “Taken” – another film that tackles a just cause but using a “win at all cost” attitude. I’d love to see a review of that film here because it deals with a major issue of our day (sexual slavery).

    In the case of Kearns, this man took matters into his own hands – literally, even defending himself in court–unlike, for example, Joseph who left matters like this to God.

    I think we all have a tough time in this area of life. Maybe not in such a large way as Kearns, but each day I’m faced with the question “Do I believe that God is sovereign? Will He work “all things together for good?” To what extent do I enter the fray?”

    While the pacing of the movie was a tad slow, the story is a good one. Thanks for the recommendation. Also, thanks for the L’Amour recommendation. I’ll post to your article on that subject once I’m through the Sackett series.

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *