Famous Women Inventors: Mary Anderson – Inventor of Windshield Wipers

In 1903, it rarely occurred to anyone that rain on a moving vehicle’s windshield was a problem that could be eliminated. It was something drivers simply accepted and dealt with in their own ways, usually by stopping every once in a while and manually scraping off the windshield moisture that was causing them to see poorly while they were driving. A young woman named Mary Anderson changed all that with her invention of the windshield wiper, an idea that leapt into her mind as she traveled from Alabama to New York City.

Little is known about Mary Anderson, except for the incident that inspired her infamous creation. When Anderson got to New York, the weather was rather sloppy, and she saw drivers constantly stopping their cars and getting out to remove snow and ice from the windshields. Anderson decided this method could be improved. She began to draw up plans for a device that could be activated from inside the car to clear the windshield.

Anderson applied for a patent for a swinging arm with a rubber blade. The device consisted of a lever that could be operated from inside a car by the driver. The lever caused a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade to swing across the windshield and then back again to their original position, thus removing droplets of rain or flakes of snow from the windshield’s surface. The patent for the device was issued in 1903. Similar devices had been made earlier than Anderson’s was, but hers was the first that actually worked. Additionally, the device could be easily removed if so desired, after winter was over.

At the time she applied for her patent, cars were not very popular. Henry Ford’s Model A automobile had not even been manufactured yet, and he would not create his famed Model T vehicle until 1908. Anderson, meanwhile, was teased and laughed at by many people because of her idea for the windshield wipers. Many felt the movement of the windshield wipers would distract the drivers. However, that laughter did not last long. By 1913, thousands of Americans were driving their own cars, and mechanical windshield wipers were standard equipment. Now, a century later, it’s almost impossible to imagine what drivers would ever do without windshield wipers.*

* Mary Anderson: Windshield Wipers, September 2001, Inventor of the Week Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Engineering website, accessed March 3, 2009