You may have never heard of Mary Anderson, but you’ve probably used her invention thousands of times in your life!
One frosty day in 1903, Mary Anderson (1866-1953), a native of Birmingham, Alabama, was visiting New York City via a trolley car. She was trying to catch all the sights of the city’s crowded streets, tall buildings, and horseless carriages, but she had a hard time seeing them because of the snowy weather.
Mary noticed that the driver was also having difficulty seeing through the sleet and snow. Every few minutes, the driver would have to reach through his window to wipe the snow and sleet off the windshield by hand. Sometimes he would even have to stick his head out the window while driving in order to see! Forgetting about the sights around her, Mary started thinking about how the driver could stay warm inside the vehicle without worrying about the snow piling up on his windshield.
As soon as she went back home, she started working out her idea for the first windshield wipers. Mary Anderson envisioned a device that would attach to the outside of the car, with a long spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade. The driver could turn a handle from inside the vehicle to move the arm and wipe the snow off the windshield, without having to stick his hand out in the freezing weather.
Mary filed for a patent for the first windshield wipers in 1903, and tried to sell her device to several companies, who all rejected her invention. At first, people didn’t see the value of her invention and thought it would just distract drivers. Mary was ahead of her time; in the early 20th century many cars didn’t go fast enough to even need windshields, and outside major cities few people even owned cars. Car safety didn’t really become a priority until the 1950s (when safer brakes and seatbelts were invented).
Mary Anderson’s invention was forgotten, until her patent lapsed and others were able to copy her idea. By the 40s and 50s, when cars were much more common and affordable, windshield wipers were standard on most vehicles, and they’re now usually a legal requirement.
Bonus fact: The first automatic windshield wipers were also invented by a woman, Charlotte Bridgwood, who filed a patent for her invention in 1917. Her invention, like Mary’s, was not a commercial success.
KeriLynn Engel is an autodidact and women’s history buff who founded Amazing Women in History in 2011.