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. And unfortunately, Anderson failed to reap financial benefits from her invention during her lifetime, and she's sadly 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, Burton Hill Plantation, Greene County, Alabama.
  • Parents: John C. and Rebecca Anderson. 
  • Died: June 27, 1953, 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. Her 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 in Birmingham on Highland Avenue soon after their arrival. Other detours for Anderson include a period of time spent in Fresno, California, where she ran a cattle ranch and vineyard from 1893–1898.

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 moved back into the Fairmont Apartments, with her mother, Fannie, and Fannie's husband G.P.Thornton. Anderson's aunt brought an enormous trunks with her, which when opened contained a collection of gold and jewelry which allowed her family to life comfortably from then out. 

Around 1900,Anderson took some of that inheritance from her aunt, and, eager to make exciting use of the money, she took a trip to New York City during the thick of winter in 1903.

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. 

Anderson died in Birmingham in 1953, at the age of 87.  

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