Women in Transportation History: Mary Anderson, Inventor of the First Practical Windshield Wiper

Mary Anderson (1866-1953) was an entrepreneur who worked at various times during her long life as a rancher, real estate developer, and viticulturist (someone who grows grapes). In addition, the Alabama native made a major contribution to transportation by inventing the first practical windshield wiper.

Anderson was inspired to create her version of this device during a trip to New York City in the winter of 1902. While traveling on one of the city’s streetcars, Anderson observed how the motorman kept the windshield open when it was sleeting. He did this because it was too hard to keep the windshield free of sleet while the streetcar was in motion. Anderson came up with an idea for taking care of this challenge, and followed up on the idea after returning home to Alabama.

Anderson recruited a designer to prepare a drawing of her idea, namely a hand-operated mechanism that could keep a vehicle’s windshield clear of precipitation and other weather-induced obstructions. After receiving her requested illustration, Anderson had a local company make a prototype of her windshield wiper.

In June 1903, Anderson applied for a patent for what she termed a “window cleaning device.” Less than five months later, she was granted Patent 743,801 for her invention. The device consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that could be used to operate a spring-loaded rubber blade outside on the windshield. The lever could cause the blade to move back and forth across the windshield to clear away rain, snow, sleet, hail, and other deposits that can significantly reduce visibility. Anderson’s invention also featured a counterweight to guarantee contact between the blade and the windshield. Similar contrivances had already been created by others, but Anderson’s version of the windshield wiper proved to be the first one that was actually effective.

Unfortunately, Anderson was not successful attracting any investments for her invention or selling the rights to it. By the time her basic design for windshield wipers became standard equipment for most vehicles, her patent had expired and she wasn’t able to secure any royalties or licensing fees. She is still remembered, however, for perfecting something that has made motorized travel in bad weather a lot easier and safer.

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