Today we are talking about the inventor of the windshield wiper, Your Gal, Mary Anderson.
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Inventing the Windshield Wiper
There’s not actually a lot of information out there about Mary’s personal life. What we do know is that Mary Anderson was born in Greene County, Alabama in 1866. In 1889 (when she was 23) she moved back in with her sister and widowed mother who lived in Birmingham, Alabama. By 1893, Mary had moved west to Fresno, California where until 1898 she operated a cattle ranch and vineyard.
As Mary was visiting New York City in the winter of 1902, she was riding in a trolley car and it was the middle of winter so it was raining, sleeting and snowing. She saw that the trolley car driver was driving with both panes of the double front window open because he had trouble keeping the windshield clear. In this day, it is also said that people had to stop driving to wipe off the windows, some even used the sleeves on their arms to clear the windows. It impacted Mary so much that she just had to do something about it.
Keep in mind at this time horse and buggies were still more popular that automobiles, but cars were fast replacing horses and carriages on city streets, interstate roadways, and rural roads.
Listen as Kate goes into more detail of cars at in the early 1900’s in this week’s episode.
Mary conducted experiments, as any inventor does, and worked until she found something that worked. The “ah-hah” moment occurred when she imagined a device that used rubber squeegees to remove water from windshields. When she returned to Alabama, she hired a designer for a hand-operated device to keep a windshield clear and had a local company produce a working model. Her device consisted of a lever that you turned inside the vehicle near the steering wheel that controlled a wooden and rubber blade on the outside of the windshield. The lever could be operated to cause the spring-loaded arm to move back and forth across the windshield. The device was actually secured to the top of the windshield and swung downwards instead of no days where it is attached at the bottom of the windshield and swings upward. A counterweight was used to ensure contact between the wiper and the window.
Similar devices had been made earlier, but Mary’s was the first to be effective. She applied for a 17-year patent for a windshield wiper and in 1903 was granted. The patent application describes that the device was easily removable — “thus leaving nothing to mar the usual appearance of the car during fair weather,” according to patent language.
Many people were initially leery of Anderson’s windshield wiper invention, thinking it would distract drivers.
Three people filed a patent for a window cleaning device in 1903. Three months after Mary’s patent Robert A Douglass filed a patent for a Locomotive cab window cleaner. Five months after that, in England James Henry Apjohn patented an “Apparatus for cleaning carriage, motor car and other windows” this used brushes or wipers and could be motor driven or hand driven.
There would be a series of patents throughout the years to include them being automatic, intermittent speeds, and electromechical.
The Journey To Get Wipers on Vehicles
Mary was granted U.S. patent number 743,801 for her novel windshield wiper in November of 1903. But honestly no one did anything about it for a while because they feared it would cloud the driver’s vision, didn’t want to pay royalties, and there were a series of sketchy patent holders in the automotive industry just trying to get money.
In 1905 Mary tried to sell the rights to her invention through a respectable Canadian firm, but they rejected her application saying, “We do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.” Considering there are now windshield wipers on space ships now, this seems crazy.
The patent expired in 1920 and the automobile manufacturing business grew exponentially. One large factor in the America’s car industry was Henry Ford’s assembly line being able to make a Model T in 93 minutes and bring the price down making a car affordable to more people.
On cars built prior to 1920, most wipers were still paired and anchored at the top of the windshield.
In 1922, Cadillac became the first car manufacturer to adopt them as standard equipment.
Henry Ford, notoriously stubborn about adding any new “gadgets” to cars, did not get on board with this idea until an electrical system was involved and the “gadget” was installed on his own car.
As electrical systems evolved, wipers were relocated to the base of the windshield. By the mid-thirties Trico had introduced the first windshield-washer system.
Mary’s Later Life
Mary’s invention of the windshield wiper was not her only accomplishment in life. She also built what is called the Fairmont Apartments soon after settling in Alabama. Just by this little information we know about her life outside of the invention, we can tell she was a go-getter, driven and hardworking. Because of all of this, it also implies that she did well for herself and maybe wasn’t rich but definitely well off with a sense of adventure and helping those in need.
She continued to manage the Fairmont Apartments until her death at the age of 87 in 1953. At the time of her death she was the oldest member of South Highland Presbyterian Church. She died at her summer home in Monteagle, Tennessee. Her funeral was conducted by Dr. Frank A Mathes at South Highland and she was buried at Elmwood Cemetery.
In 2011 she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
We normally leave you with a quote from our gal but we couldn’t find a quote attributed to Mary but what we did find what an interview on NPR’s segment Joe’s Big Idea where Mary’s great-great niece, Sarah Scott Wingo said this:
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ABOUT YOUR GAL FRIDAY
Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast with supplemental video and article profiling and amazing gal of our galaxy that we can all learn from. Each month your hosts Kate Chaplin & Phoebe Frear talk about the life and legacy about a gal in the subjects of art, history, science and culture.
Your Gal Friday also ties into Gal’s Guide school outreach. Gal’s Guide offers a K-University presentations of Women You Didn’t Learn About in School. Showcasing 14-26 amazing gals to classrooms and assemblies, the presentations spotlight these gals where the podcast goes more in depth of your new favorite gals every Friday.
- #12 Julia Child