Mary Anderson, Inventor of the Windshield Wiper

Windshield wiper
Mary Anderson patented her "window cleaning device" in 1903, and the windshield wiper has been with us ever since. (Grant Faint/Getty Images)

As a woman from the South (where cars were not all that common at the turn of the 20th century), Mary Anderson 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.

Early Life

Aside from the date and location of her birth (1866, in Alabama), Anderson life’s is largely a series of question marks—the names and occupations of her parents are unknown, for example—until around 1889, when she helped build the Fairmont Apartments in Birmingham on Highland Avenue. Other detours for Anderson include a period of time spent in Fresno, California, where she ran a cattle ranch and vineyard until 1898.

Around 1900, it is said that Anderson came into a large inheritance from an aunt. 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.

For her “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window,” 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 businesspeople access to her original conception. 

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