Mary Anderson, Unsung Queen of Rainy Days, Patents the Windshield Wiper

by | Nov 5, 2020

This Week in Motorhead History:

In the early days of motoring, inventions came out of necessity. After all, horseless carriages evolved slowly and then all at once, improving in design, efficiency and production as the like of Ransom Olds and Henry Ford came onto the scene. They didn’t know what cars needed until they needed it, since even the drawn carriage was a far cry from what the car would quickly  become at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. 

And that is why Mary Anderson never got the credit she deserves.

On November 10, 1903, Mary Anderson, a native from Alabama, patented the first windshield wiper or, as it was written by the patent office, she received a patent for a window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window.”

The idea had come to Mary in winter of the previous year, while riding a trolley car through New York City. Then in her mid-thirties, Mary Anderson was already a cattle ranch and vineyard owner and had the business savvy to know when she’d stumbled upon a good idea. And that first windshield wiper was a good idea, for before its invention, trolley drivers would be forced to open the front window pane to see outside, allowing any matter of rain, sleet or snow to both assault them and the passengers in the seats behind.

And right there on that trolley, Mary began her sketches. When she returned to Alabama, she hired an inventor to help her complete the design, which included a basic rubber blade on the outside of the window that could be controlled from the inside of the vehicle. The lever was spring loaded to swing back and forth and counter-weighted to ensure contact with the window. While not the first such concept, Mary’s was the very first to be effective.

But it didn’t seem to matter. Though she pitched companies in North America, including a Canadian vehicle producer who claimed her idea had “no commercial value” Mary’s patent expired without any success or acknowledgement. She was succeeded by the equally unsuccessful Charlotte Bridgewater in 1917, whose Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner” fared no better than Mary’s original design.

It wasn’t until 1922 when Cadillac became the first car company to make the windshield wiper standard equipment, but by then Mary’s patent had long run out. She died in 1953, at the age of 87, and in 2011, Mary Anderson was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Mary’s story is not unique. Like many men and women who came before and after her, she fought to be a part of the changing tide of automotive history. Would the story have had a different ending had she been a man? There’s no easy way to tell. After all, well over a hundred years later, women still struggle to find their foothold in the automotive industry.

But one thing is for certain, if Mary’s story tells us nothing else, it says that the automotive industry did not come together all at once, but stumbled and often tripped through history. It floundered through early invention, coming together just as Johnny Cash said– one piece at a time. Well, it turns out Johnny was a few decades before his time.

Just like Mary Anderson.  

Image selected from the Encyclopedia of Alabama