On a snowy day in 1902, National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Mary Anderson was riding in a streetcar in New York City and observed how frustrated the vehicle’s driver was becoming as he struggled to remove the snow from the windshield. Often, the man had to stick his head outside the window and even stop the vehicle entirely to clean the snow off himself.
When Anderson returned home to Birmingham, Alabama, she thought about how there had to be a more efficient way of cleaning a windshield than what she had witnessed on her trip to the Big Apple. She sat down and began to sketch out a design for a wiper blade that could be operated from inside the vehicle. After finalizing the details of her idea, she filed a patent application for her creation on June 18, 1903.
A few short months later, on Nov. 10, 1903, Anderson was awarded a patent for her “Window Cleaning Device.” In the patent application, Anderson explains that by operating a lever inside the vehicle, an external wiper blade moves across the windshield to provide safe visibility:
“From the foregoing description it will be seen that a simple mechanism is provided for removing snow, rain, and sleet from the glass in front of the motorman, and it is simply necessary for him to take hold of the handle and turn it in one direction or the other to clean the pane, the spring action upon the cleaners operating to hold the rubbers in yielding contact against the glass with sufficient pressure to clean the latter and at the same time with sufficient yielding action so as not to be rendered inoperative by striking an obstruction.”
While the usefulness of windshield wipers is obvious to us today, and they have become a standard feature on all cars and trucks on the road, because automobiles were not a common form of transportation in 1903, Anderson struggled to find companies interested in producing her invention.
In an interview with NPR, Sara-Scott Wingo, Anderson’s great-great-niece, confirms this and shared with the interviewer one of the many rejection letters Anderson received. The one she owns comes from the firm of Dinning and Eckenstein and reads, “We beg to acknowledge receipt of your recent favor with reference to the sale of your patent. In reply, we regret to state we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our understanding its sale.”
While this letter reads as almost painfully misinformed given the ubiquitous use of windshield wipers today, it wasn’t until 1908 that Henry Ford began selling the Model T. Because a large majority of the U.S. population did not own a car, the common consensus was that Anderson’s device wasn’t useful. In fact, many believed that the movement from the wiper would distract the driver.
Unfortunately, Anderson gave up trying to partner with companies to manufacture her invention, and the patent for her “Window Cleaning Device” expired in 1920. By that time, the popularity of cars (and windshield wiping devices) had dramatically increased. Through no fault of her own, her invention was simply ahead of its time, and other companies and entrepreneurs were able to profit off her original ideas.
In 1922, Cadillac began building cars with windshield wipers as a standard feature, and the rest of the automotive industry followed suit not long after.
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While Anderson was not properly recognized for her innovation during her lifetime, NIHF is honored to help give her the proper acknowledgment she deserves. To learn more about some of our other incredible Inductees whose innovations have improved the lives of people around the world, we invite you to visit our website.