What would we do without windshield wipers? We have Mary Anderson to thank for them.
Anderson was born in Greene County, Alabama on February 19, 1866 and later moved to Birmingham. While on a trip to New York City in 1902, Anderson watched as her trolley-car operator struggled to see out the front window during a bout of inclement weather. Drivers usually had to open their windows in order to see the road when it was snowing or raining. Naturally, this left the drivers and the front-row passengers covered in rain or snow.
So Anderson began developing a device for easy cleaning of windshields and was awarded a patent for her invention in November 1903.
“My invention relates to an improvement in window-cleaning devices in which a radially-swinging arm is actuated by a handle from the inside of a car-vestibule,” Anderson wrote in her patent application.
The National Inventors Hall of Fame has a clearer description of how the device worked, writing:
“Her idea consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that controlled a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade. The lever, with a counterweight to keep the wiper in contact with the window, could move the blade across the windshield, removing rain or snow.”
Others had tried to create similar devices, but Anderson’s was the first that actually worked, thus making her the inventor of the first successful windshield wiper. Oddly, Anderson tried to sell her idea to manufacturing firms, but was repeatedly rejected.
“Dear Madam, we beg to acknowledge receipt of your recent favor with reference to the sale of your patent. In reply we regret to state that we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale,” states a letter to Anderson from the firm Dinning and Eckenstein.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that Anderson was “teased and laughed at by many” for the idea. Her peers thought that the windshield wiper would distract drivers and cause accidents.
Her invention also came a few years before the mass production of automobiles. Henry Ford’s Model A had yet to be manufactured, and his Model T didn’t arrive on the scene until 1908.
Anderson never profited from her invention, but windshield wipers were standard automobile equipment by 1913. In 1922, Cadillac was installing wipers on all of its cars.
According to her obituary, Anderson was the landlord of an apartment building she built with her mother in Birmingham. She also operated a cattle ranch and vineyard in Fresno, California.
Anderson’s great-great niece, Sara-Scott Wingo, said in a 2017 interview that Anderson was a fiercely independent woman and never married.
“She didn’t have a father, she didn’t have a husband, and she didn’t have a son. And the world was kind of run by men back then,” said Wingo.
Anderson died at the age of 87 on June 27, 1953 at her summer home in Monteagle, Tennessee. At the time of her death, she was the oldest living member of the South Highlands Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.
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