Who Made the First Windshield Wipers?

Do you think much about windshield wipers as you're driving? Depending on where you live, you may use them frequently, and they're some of the most important features on your car when it's raining or snowing. However, if you didn't have these useful tools, or if the ones on your car were broken, you could seriously compromise your safety on the road. There was a time, when automobiles first came off the production line, when wipers didn't exist. Imagine the challenge of navigating the road in the driving road or a blizzard without the use of wipers. This hazard would make it extremely difficult if not impossible to safely see the street and surrounding cars. Wondering who invented windshield wipers? Thanks to a 37-year-old Alabama woman, drivers and passengers can easily clear the windshield of water and drive in just about any amount of precipitation.

What Happened Before?

Prior to this handy invention, people in some of the first cars had to contend with rain and snow in much more inconvenient ways. Drivers would have to stop every few minutes and manually wipe of the windshield themselves. Or, people simply wouldn’t drive in such weather. Though car didn’t become widely available until the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T in 1908, the first automobiles were built in 1885 by Germany’s Karl Benz. It was 1902 when the idea of windshield wipers came to be.

A Southerner’s Visit to the Big Apple

In 1902, Mary Anderson, a Birmingham, Alabama, native, was on a trip to New York City. On one winter day, she was riding in a streetcar, stuck in traffic. Snow was falling, making it difficult for the driver to see. While the car was stopped, the driver got out and cleaned off the windshield. This happened over and over, causing Anderson to wonder whether there wasn’t a more efficient way of removing snow. The snow impeded the driver’s vision as it built up and the act of stopping to brush it off made the ride much longer. Anderson thought if there was some method of putting a blade on the car that could wipe away the snow, drivers wouldn’t have to keep getting out of cars to clear their vantage point. The thoughts sparked an invention that would benefit every driver in the world.

To the Drawing Board

When she got back to Alabama, Anderson went right to work with her idea. She drew a picture of this water-removing device and described how it would function. Anderson wasn’t merely curious about this concept, nor was she just tinkering with a fanciful dream. She was so serious about it that she applied for a patent for the windshield wipers on June 18, 1903. With Anderson’s device, the driver would work the wipers by using a handle inside the car. The exact language of the patent stated that the wipers would “thus leaving nothing to mar the usual appearance of the car during fair weather.”

Success and Disappointment

Good news came to Anderson on November 10, 1903, just five months after filing the patent. The U.S. patent office informed her that it had been accepted. She awarded patent number 743,801 for her “Window Cleaning Device.” With this significant win in hand, Anderson was eager to market the device and get manufacturers to put it in cars. It certainly wouldn’t hurt her financially, either, if a company were to purchase the idea from her. Unfortunately, no companies were interested in her new invention. She received a letter from one firm that said there was no commercial value in the device that would “warrant our undertaking of its sale.” She continued to shop around her idea, but no one would accept. She was continuously rejected. Today, it seems easy to be confused by why no one would want to use her invention. Decades later, some of her descendants suggested that the fact she was a woman living in what was then a male-dominated business world had something to do with her inability to interest businesses.

Catching On

Eventually, this windshield wiper inventor would see her creation make it into cars, even if it wasn’t her original form. Other inventors such as James Henry Apjohn, John Oishei, and Charlotte Bridgwood filed patents for similar devices that would captivate the interest of the public and manufacturing companies. Fred and William Folberth came up with an automatic wiper that used a vacuum for power. This device was common on cars through the 1950s.

Intermittent Wipers

Anderson’s invention got the ball rolling for other inventors and thinkers to come up with more advanced ways of removing water with windshield wipers. Engineering professor Robert Kearns, of Detroit, Michigan, used electronic components to build a wiper that moved every few seconds. He filed a patent in 1963 for his intermittent device. Kearns wanted the Ford Motor Company to manufacture and sell the device. Ford initially passed on the proposal but offered a similar wiper a few years later. Kearns wasn’t pleased with this development and sued Ford in a patent dispute in 1978. He did the same with Chrysler four years later. He won a settlement in 1990, and a Supreme Court ruling upheld this decision in 1995.

Wipers Today

Of course, you won’t find a car today without windshield wipers. Wipers and their blades come in different sizes, and some wipers are made especially for certain makes and models. When your wiper blades run out, it’s easy to head online to AutoZone.com and order the right pair. You simply put in the make, model and year of your vehicle, and a wide selection will be available for you to look at.

Windshield wipers certainly have come a long way since their humble beginnings at the turn of the 20th century. The next time you’re driving in a rainstorm or during a wintertime blizzard, you can remember the story of Mary Anderson and be thankful for her original design. Though others came after her to refine the concept, this Alabama woman is the pioneer who started it all.

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