Mary Anderson: singing – and windscreen wiping – in the rain

Life as a woman in the early 20th century didn’t stop Mary Anderson from being independent, successful and able to see through a wet car windscreen.

There are inventions that, retrospectively, you’re glad you didn’t come up with. As we slide into a wet and wintry autumn, I’d suggest that the windscreen wiper is one of them.

The original inventor of the wiper had an almost insurmountable problem to overcome – she was a woman. At the turn of the 20th century in the US, or anywhere else for that matter, being taken seriously as a female engineer was remarkably difficult. In fact, being taken seriously as an independent person was difficult enough.

Mary Anderson had discovered this the hard way. Born on the Burton Hill Plantation in Greene County, Alabama, in 1866, the sudden death of her father presented her with the stark choice of finding a husband or trying to go it alone as an independent woman. She chose the latter route and, having moved to the boom town of Birmingham, Alabama, became a property developer, building her own apartment block.

The life of a business woman rather suited Anderson. With the profits from Birmingham, she moved to Fresno in California to set up a ranch and a vineyard, both of which also did very well. That success took Anderson, aged 37, to New York City in the winter of 1903 and it was there that she had her great idea.

Anderson found travelling in a trolley-car in the freezing sleet was an unpleasant experience, not least because it flew into the vehicle as the driver had folded down the windscreen to see where he was going. It struck Mary that life would be much easier for driver and passengers if there was a way to remove the snow and sleet from the windshield so the driver could see through it. Back in Alabama she drew up plans for a hand-​operated device consisting of a spring-loaded arm, attached to a rubber blade that swept across the glass. That same year she applied for and was granted a patent for 17 years. That should have made her name.

However, Mary Anderson’s patent was just a touch ahead of its time – in fact about 17 years ahead. From 1903 to 1920, cars remained few and far between in the US. Many didn’t even have a windscreen and those that did rarely went fast enough for the weather to present a problem. She also suffered from being a woman in a very new and male automotive world. Despite offering her device to all the early manufacturers of road vehicles, most thought the wiper unnecessary and a few even claimed it would be dangerous – one suggested that it could hypnotise drivers.

Anderson had no buyers at the time her patent expired, though by then the motor industry was just starting to take off, and ‘off patent’ windscreen wipers were appearing on more and more vehicles. By that date, another woman, Charlotte Bridgwood, an inventor and owner of a small engineering company, had also invented the ‘Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner’, the world’s first electric windscreen wipers. Unfortunately, the industry again ignored a woman trying to make waves in a man’s world.

You might then guess that the first commercially successful wipers were invented, or at least promoted, by a man. And you’d be right.

In 1917, John R Oishei suffered a collision with a cyclist in heavy rain that inspired him to form the Tri-Continental Corporation which in 1920, just as Anderson’s patent expired, was granted a patent for ‘Cleaner for Windshields and the Like’ – the first successful windscreen wipers.

However, later events showed that the industry was just as happy to discriminate against inventors as a whole when they felt it financially prudent. Robert Kearns had become interested in wiper technology after an incident with a champagne cork left him virtually blind in one eye. He found constant wipers a distraction and so invented and patented, in 1967, his ‘Windshield Wiper System With Intermittent Operation’.

For once, the industry loved the idea and his technology was soon incorporated by the major US car-makers. The only problem was that they all neglected to pay his licence fee. This led Kearns to a nervous breakdown, followed by a 14-year campaign of litigation against Ford and Chrysler, whose lawyers maintained that as the device contained no new components, it was not patentable. They were perhaps right, as much of the technology had been pioneered by Anderson and Bridgwood who they had studiously ignored altogether. However, Kearns argued successfully that his invention was a new and a non-obvious combination of those parts, which it was. He was eventually awarded over $40m.

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