Mary Anderson, inventor

Mary Anderson, inventor
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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 breaks 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.

Related Reading

Stephanie Kwolek

While others had invented similar products, Mary had a unique, easy-to-use design and was quick to patent it. Stephanie Kwolek, on the other hand, didn’t make lots of money from her invention — but she did save hundreds of lives!
» Click here to read about her invention

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About KeriLynn Engel

KeriLynn Engel is a Connecticut freelance writer, professional blogger for hire, and author of Amazing Women In History: 20 inspiring stories of women the history books left out.

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Comments

    • says

      That’s a great thought, I didn’t even think of that! Looking at the dates here, she was 37 on her fateful trip to New York City, and lived to be 87 years old. According to what I’ve read, windshield wipers weren’t very common until the 40s-50s, when Mary was 74-87.

      If it were me, I’d be kind of bitter, honestly ;D Can you imagine having invented something so ubiquitous decades before it became popular, and never getting credit? (One of the sources I read said she was “rediscovered” relatively recently through the patent she filed, so she wasn’t known as the inventor of windshield wipers during her life time.)

  1. says

    That was an amazing story. I never knw that about the windshield wiper. I did go to the theatre a few years back to see Greg Kinnear in the movie “a flash of genius”. Bob Kearns (the part Greg played) made the wipers better. Of couse Ford stole the idea from him. But I never once asked myself who actually invented the wiper.
    Glad I came across this blog. Thanks

    • says

      Unfortunately I’ve never come across any quotes from Mary Anderson. She lived a pretty obscure life and there’s not a whole lot of information available about her outside what’s in the patents she filed.

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