Mary Elizabeth Anderson (February 19, 1866 – June 27, 1953) was an American real estate developer, rancher, viticulturist, and inventor of the windshield wiper blade.
On November 10, 1903 Anderson was granted her first patent for an automatic car window cleaning device controlled from inside the car, called the windshield wiper.
In a visit to New York City in the winter of 1902, Anderson sat in a trolley car on a frosty day. Anderson observed that the trolley car driver struggled to see past the windows because of the falling sleet. The trolley car’s front window was designed for bad-weather visibility, but its multi-pane windshield system worked very poorly. Therefore, to clear the sights, the driver needed to open the window, lean out of the vehicle, or to stop the car to go outside in order to wipe the windscreen with his hands. Anderson, who was not an engineer but an entrepreneur, identified the problem and its opportunity. She envisioned a windshield wiper blade that could be operated from the inside by the trolley driver. At that time, it rarely occurred to anyone else to eliminate the problem. It was something drivers simply accepted and dealt with.
When she returned to Alabama she hired a designer for a hand-operated device to keep a windshield clear and had a local company produce a working model. She applied for, and in 1903 was granted, a 17-year patent for a windshield wiper. The patent application was filed on June 18, 1903. On November 10, 1903, the United States Patent Office awarded Anderson patent number 743,801 for her Window Cleaning device.
Her device consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that controlled a rubber blade on the outside of the windshield. The lever could be operated to cause the spring-loaded arm to move back and forth across the windshield. A counterweight was used to ensure contact between the wiper and the window. The device could be easily removed if desired after the winter was over. Similar devices had been made earlier, but Anderson’s was the first windshield clearing device to be effective. Anderson’s simple mechanism and basic design have remained much the same, but unlike today’s windscreen wipers, Anderson’s could be removed when not needed.
In 1903 when Anderson applied for the patent, cars were not very popular. Henry Ford’s Model A automobile had not even been manufactured yet. Therefore, when Anderson tried to sell the rights to her invention through a noted Canadian firm of Dinning and Eckenstein in 1905, they rejected her application. They argued, “we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.” Furthermore, many could not see the value of her invention and stressed the risk that the driver would be distracted by operating the device and the moving wipers.
By 1913 the automobile manufacturing business had grown exponentially and windshield wipers were standard equipment. In 1922, Cadillac became the first car manufacturer to adopt them as standard equipment. However, Anderson never profited from her invention, the patent expiring in 1920.
In 1917, Charlotte Bridgewood patented the “electric storm windshield cleaner,” the first automatic wiper system that used rollers instead of blades. Like Anderson, Bridgewood never made any money from her invention. Sara-Scott Wingo, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va., and Anderson’s great-great niece, suspects that Anderson’s invention never went anywhere because Anderson was an independent woman. Wingo said in an interview with NPR News, “She didn’t have a father. She didn’t have a husband. And the world was kind of run by men back then.”