Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1977:
KEARNS'S WIPERS

by John Lienhard presents guest Rob Zaretsky

Today, our guest, Rob Zaretsky, sees through the rain. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Robert Kearns died recently. Appropriately, I learned about his death as I was driving home in a light rain. An engineer, Kearns invented the intermittent wiper -- the very object I was fiddling with as I listened to the radio. Perhaps it would have been the same, I thought, to read in moveable type that Gutenberg had died. Or hear about Marconi's death over the crackle of the radio. I then realized that, yes, the medium is the message, but also that the message is in the medium.

Gutenberg, Marconi ... Kearns? The discordance comes from the magnitude of the invention. Printing presses and radios are first-tier inventions -- creations with a seismic impact upon human history. Life before such inventions is hard to bridge, if only in our imaginations. The effort to do so leaves us in the predicament of Gary Larson's suburban family, sitting in a half circle. All their eyes are focused on an empty space where the set would've stood. The caption? "Life before the television."

But there are the second and third tiers of human ingenuity, piled high with disposable razors, electric toothbrushes, dimmer switches, Velcro ... . Revolutionary advances? Well, they are hardly reason to sneer. Our lives are not utterly transformed by such inventions, but they are tweaked. We rightly value these small steps in easing our lives, just as we value their human scale. I don't slap my forehead when I read about the grand inventions of Fulton or Edison. Yet the intermittent wiper: well, why didn't I think of that?!

These are small nuggets of invention, modest but honest in their contributions to our well being. They also contain an equally modest element of irony. Consider the snooze button. Basically the intermittent wiper of alarm clocks, it has made our transition from bed to bathroom less brutal. But sleep researchers tell us that the snooze button has also made for less rest. The daily-repeated, and willed, interruption of sleep has turned us into a nation of narcoleptics.

As I drove in the rain, I heard the same ironic patter. The greater degree of control over the wiper's timing forced me to spend more time, not less, worrying about the rain. The more closely I tried to synchronize the wipers with the rain, the more elusive grew the goal of perfect synchronicity. Kearn's invention held the promise of this oneness when my wipers, nature, and I would seamlessly mesh. Then raindrops would truly be falling on my head.

But the epiphany never arrived. My experience resembled Zeno's paradox of the arrow. This Greek thinker claimed that an arrow could never reach its target since the distance between the two can be halved and halved again infinitely.

In a similar manner, the closer I got to a perfectly wiped windshield, the further the goal appeared. If I had not been so tired from abusing my snooze button that morning, my frustration would perhaps have been less.

I'm Rob Zaretsky at the Honors College, University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.

This site gives Robert Kearns obituary.

Intermediate wipers
(photo by John Lienhard)

ordinary inventions
A variety of Art Deco style commonplace appliances. (Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, photo by John Lienhard)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.