Biography of Mary Anderson, Inventor of the Windshield Wiper

Windshield wiper

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Mary Anderson (February 19, 1866–June 27, 1953) was hardly a likely candidate to invent the windshield wiper—especially considering she filed her patent before Henry Ford even started manufacturing cars. Unfortunately, Anderson failed to reap financial benefits from her invention during her lifetime, and as a result she's been relegated to a footnote in the history of automobiles.

Fast Facts: Mary Anderson

  • Known For: Inventing the windshield wiper, before a single one of Henry Ford's automobiles was made
  • Born: February 19, 1866 on Burton Hill Plantation, Greene County, Alabama
  • Parents: John C. and Rebecca Anderson
  • Died: June 27, 1953 in Monteagle, Tennessee
  • Education: Unknown
  • Spouse(s): None
  • Children: None.

Early Life

Mary Anderson was born on February 19, 1866, to John C. and Rebecca Anderson on Burton Hill Plantation in Greene County, Alabama. She was one of at least two daughters; the other was Fannie, who remained close to Mary all her life. Their father died in 1870, and the young family was able to live on the proceeds of John's estate. In 1889, Rebecca and her two daughters moved to Birmingham and built the Fairmont Apartments on Highland Avenue soon after their arrival.

In 1893, Mary left home to operate a cattle ranch and vineyard in Fresno, California but returned in 1898 to help care for an ailing aunt. She and her aunt moved into the Fairmont Apartments with her mother, her sister Fannie, and Fannie's husband G.P. Thornton. Anderson's aunt brought an enormous trunk with her, which when opened contained a collection of gold and jewelry that allowed her family to live comfortably from that point forward.

In the thick of winter in 1903, Anderson took some of that inheritance from her aunt and, eager to make exciting use of the money, took a trip to New York City.

The 'Window Cleaning Device'

It was during this trip that inspiration struck. While riding a streetcar during a particularly snowy day, Anderson observed the agitated and uncomfortable behavior of the vehicle’s cold driver, who had to rely on all sorts of tricks—sticking his head out of the window, stopping the vehicle to clean the windshield—to see where he was driving. Following the trip, Anderson returned to Alabama and, in response to the problem she witnessed, drew up a practical solution: a design for a windshield blade that would connect itself to the interior of the car, allowing the driver to operate the windshield wiper from inside the vehicle. She filed an application for a patent on June 18, 1903.

For her “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice, or sleet from the window,” on November 10, 1903, Anderson was awarded U.S. Patent No. 743,801. However, Anderson was unable to get anyone to bite on her idea. All the corporations she approached—including a manufacturing firm in Canada—turned her wiper down, out of a perceived lack of demand. Discouraged, Anderson stopped pushing the product, and, after the contracted 17 years, her patent expired in 1920. By this time, the prevalence of automobiles (and, therefore, the demand for windshield wipers) had skyrocketed. But Anderson removed herself from the fold, allowing corporations and other business-people access to her original conception.

Death and Legacy

Although little is known about Mary Anderson, by the 1920s, her brother-in-law had died, and Mary, her sister Fannie, and their mother were again living in the Fairmont Apartments in Birmingham. Mary was managing the building where they lived when she died at their summer home in Monteagle, Tennessee on June 27, 1953. Mary Anderson was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.

The windshield wiper, May Anderson's legacy, was adapted for automotive use, and in 1922, Cadillac began installing the wiper as a piece of standard equipment on its cars.

Sources

  • "Windshield Wiper Inventor, Miss Mary Anderson, Dies." Birmingham Post-Herald, June 29, 1953. 
  • Carey Jr., Charles W. "Anderson, Mary (1866–1953), inventory of the windshield wiper." American Inventors, Entrepreneurs, and Business Visionaries. New York: Facts on File, 2002.
  • Mary Anderson: Windshield Wiper. National Inventors Hall of Fame. 
  • Olive, J. Fred. "Mary Anderson." Encyclopedia of Alabama, Business and Industry, February 21, 2019. 
  • Palca, Joe. "Alabama Woman Stuck in NYC Traffic in 1902 Invented the Windshield Wiper." National Public Radio, July 25, 2017.