Close up of a windshield wiper wiping away rain drops on a car windshield

Mary Anderson: The Woman Who Set Windshield Wipers in Motion

Close up of a windshield wiper wiping away rain drops on a car windshield

Mary Anderson: The Woman Who Set Windshield Wipers in Motion

A savvy real estate investor from Alabama sketched an invention that changed automotive history. Find out how Mary Anderson invented the windshield wiper.

On a wet and freezing winter day in the early 1900s, Mary Anderson sat in a trolley as it made its way through New York City’s crowded streets. From her seat, she watched the driver squint through a large, multi-pane windshield, trying to see through sheets of sleet that continuously accumulated on the glass. Existing windshields at the time were made up of multi-pane windows — similar to double-paned windows on a house. Drivers could open and move the panes from the inside of the streetcar as needed. The purpose was to give them the ability to move debris-covered panes out of their line of sight or to allow them to lean out and clean dirty glass from behind the wheel. Unfortunately, the execution was clunky, inefficient, and often dangerous.

Circa 1907 image of a postcard of New York City streetcar with people on the street
Source: By not known; lower righthand corner of picture side of postcard states “DETROIT PUBLISHING CO.” , via Wikimedia Commons

The Birth of an Idea

As Mary Anderson watched the situation unfold during her ride, she was struck with an idea. From her seat in the trolley, she sketched an invention that would eventually change automobile history: a lever-operated (not electric) wiper that would drag across the window glass to remove rain or snow.
A savvy real estate developer from Alabama, Anderson was awarded a patent for her invention in November 1903. By then, she already had a string of entrepreneurial successes under her belt. She was behind the building of Fairmont Apartments during Birmingham’s building boom in the late 1800s, and she had taken her innovation and sense of adventure out West, where she spent five years running a cattle ranch and vineyard in Fresno, California.

Image of Mary Anderson, entrepreneur and inventor
Source: Otto Sarony, via Wikimedia Commons

Early Development

Back in Alabama, Anderson began developing prototypes for her windshield wiper invention. Although earlier designs of similar devices already existed, Anderson’s was the first to work successfully. Her wipers were spring-loaded, used an effective rubber blade, included a counterweight to ensure contact against the windshield glass, and could be removed (if desired) from the front of the vehicle after winter’s harsh weather subsided each year.

Yet despite her enthusiasm and a promising prototype, Anderson was never successful in selling her invention. A Canadian manufacturing firm rejected her device outright, citing a clear lack of commercial value. Without a buyer, Anderson’s invention languished, and her 17-year patent expired in 1920.

Success Without Reward

Thanks in part to Henry Ford’s assembly line concept, the automobile industry began to see explosive growth in America around the same year. As the number of glass-related injuries increased around the country due to a lack of standardization, Ford worked to create a safer, less expensive form of automobile glass, making windshields a common vehicle feature.

The implementation of windshield wipers soon followed. In 1922, just a few short years after Anderson’s patent expired, Cadillac began installing wiper blades on its cars as a standard feature. The company’s mechanical wipers were based on Anderson’s original design, but without an active patent, she never received any money for her invention.

Windshield wipers on a 1928 Cadillac
Source: By Sandra Fauconnier, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Anderson lived the rest of her life in Birmingham, Alabama, where she focused on managing her apartment complex. Although she never profited from her innovative windshield wiper design, she is remembered and celebrated for her early invention of this critical lifesaving device that put vehicles on the road to safer driving.

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