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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Next time it’s raining, thank two women for your windshield wipers

International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women, began on March 8, 1911. Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society and has been observed annually in March in the United States since 1987.

To help celebrate Women’s History Month, FreightWaves Classics will continue to profile a number of women who made contributions to transportation during the month of March.

The inventors of wiper blades were Mary Anderson and Charlotte Bridgwood. Although they worked independently and during different time periods, both contributed significantly to the safety of drivers around the world.

Mary Anderson and a cleared windshield. (Photo: wednesdayswomen.com)
Mary Anderson and a cleared windshield. (Photo: wednesdayswomen.com)

A trip to New York was an inspiration for Mary Anderson

Alabama native Mary Anderson (1866-1953) is given credit for inventing the first operational windshield wiper.

In 1902, Anderson was visiting New York City. On a very cold day Anderson was riding in a trolley car; sleet and snow built up on the windshield. The trolley driver had his window open in order to see and frequently had to stop the trolley completely to clear the windshield.

The driver’s activities caused delays on the trolley’s route, and also caused Anderson to wonder whether a blade of some sort could wipe off the windshield so that the driver did not have to stop, exit the vehicle and manually clear the windshield.

Anderson realized that drivers of automobiles experienced similar problems when it rained or snowed; it was then that she had the idea of wiper blades. Her idea included a hand-operated device that had a lever inside the vehicle connected to a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade that would move across the outside of the windshield. The lever would have a counterweight to ensure the wiper remained in contact with the windshield. Once an operator turned the lever the wiper blade would move across the glass, thereby removing snow, sleet and/or rain. Anderson knew her idea would ensure increased safety for drivers, passengers and pedestrians during inclement weather.

When Anderson returned to Birmingham she made a sketch of her idea, and wrote a description of it. Anderson also hired a designer and a local company to manufacture a prototype of her invention. 

A patent does not lead to success

She then applied for a patent, which was filed on June 18, 1903. Her patent application described how the wiper was to be operated and was easily removable – “thus leaving nothing to mar the usual appearance of the car during fair weather.” 

Although similar models had been invented earlier, Anderson’s windshield wiper was the first that actually worked. On November 10, 1903, the United States Patent Office awarded Anderson patent number 743,801 for her “Window Cleaning Device.”

Despite their practicality, Anderson’s wiper blades were not adopted by the auto industry. The Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo, Anderson’s great-great-niece, explained that Anderson attempted to interest the very new automobile industry in manufacturing her “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window,” but was unsuccessful.

A drawing of Anderson's hand-operated "window cleaning device." (Image: Public Domain)
A drawing of Anderson’s hand-operated “window cleaning device.” (Image: Public Domain)

For example, in 1905 she tried to sell the rights to her design to a Canadian firm but she was unsuccessful. She reasoned that selling the wiper in Canada might be more successful because of its longer winters that included rain, sleet and snow. Company executives turned down Anderson’s invention, stating that the wiper’s movement would actually be dangerous – distracting drivers and causing accidents. 

Wingo doesn’t know or understand why Anderson’s invention was not adopted, but she believes it might have been because Anderson was such an independent woman. “She didn’t have a father; she didn’t have a husband and she didn’t have a son,” Wingo commented. “And the world was run by men back then.”

Anderson’s patent expired after 17 years. Only after her patent’s expiration date did the windshield wiper become standard equipment on cars and trucks. 

Despite her invention’s lack of success, Anderson lived another 50 years and was successful in other ways – she went on to be a real estate developer and ran a cattle ranch and vineyard in California. She also lived long enough to see windshield wipers used on a daily basis.

Anderson’s accomplishments mean a great deal to Wingo and her family. “We’re all really proud of her,” Wingo stated. “I have three daughters. We talk about Mary Anderson a lot. And we all sort of feel like we want to be open and receptive to sort of our own Mary Anderson moments.”

Although Anderson never received financial rewards for her invention, she has received credit for it. She was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.

An older Mary Anderson and a more modern windshield wiper. (Photo: owlcation.com)
An older Mary Anderson and a more modern windshield wiper. (Photo: owlcation.com)

Windshield wipers are upgraded 

Mary Anderson’s manual windshield wipers were slowly adopted by the industry. However, using the wipers for long periods was often exhausting. However, another woman (Charlotte Bridgwood) developed and patented electronically operated automatic wipers in 1917. 

The president of the Bridgwood Manufacturing Company in New York, she took Anderson’s manual design and invented a method to run windshield wipers electrically. 

Bridgwood named her invention the “Storm Windshield Cleaner.” It used rollers instead of blades. However, like Anderson’s invention, Bridgwood’s design was not a commercial success, and her patent expired in 1920.

And also like Anderson, Bridgwood never received any substantial financial benefit from her invention. Although her small company produced automatic wipers prior to the expiration of her patent, they never caught on. 

After Bridgwood lost her patent-protected rights, windshield wipers were adopted. The first automobile brand that used windshield wipers was Cadillac, and soon afterward windshield wipers became standard equipment on automobiles and trucks.  

A Cadillac fitted with electric windshield wipers. (Photo: autowise.com)
A Cadillac fitted with electric windshield wipers. (Photo: autowise.com)

Legacy

While neither Anderson nor Bridgwood profited from their inventions, they still invented them. Neither woman had any mechanical or engineering qualifications. However, they used common sense to develop solutions for a problem that affected every type of motorized vehicle. 

Their legacy is that they both contributed to a device that helps keep people around the world safe during bad weather. Today, windshield wipers are so ubiquitous that they are rarely even thought of – unless a driver is driving in the rain and the vehicle’s wipers fail…

What a driver is able to see without using windshield wipers. (Photo: truckandfreight.co.za)
What a driver is able to see without using windshield wipers. (Photo: truckandfreight.co.za)