We take windshield wipers for granted as a truly excellent invention. It is a standard piece of equipment on almost all cars, except for open-wheel race cars. It is so ingenious and universal that someone must be the heir to a massive windshield wiper patent fortune. Alas, profits from Mary Anderson’s invention ended up never being hers.
Anderson was a few things, but was primarily a real estate developer and entrepreneur, building the Fairmont Apartments in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1890s. She then left Birmingham to run a cattle farm and vineyard in Fresno, California, then returned back to Alabama shortly after to care for an ailing aunt. As her biography goes, the aunt possessed a trunk with a huge collection of valuable gold and jewelry. From there, Anderson lived comfortably.
When she found herself in a New York City trolley car during the winter of 1902, Anderson observed the trolley car driver struggling to see through a thick sheet of sleet. The windows of the trolley were multi-pane and designed to counteract bad weather, but still required the driver to stop the trolley and wipe the windows to clear their view. Apparently, folks accepted that issue as permanent back then and never thought there was a better solution. I’m not sure about you, but I wouldn’t have tolerated that for more than a few minutes as a driver.
Anderson saw this issue and, with stunning lucidity, figured out that it was a problem worth fixing. She hired a designer to come up with a hand-operated rubber-bladed wiper that could continually clear the windshield without needing to stop the trolley or otherwise inconvenience drivers. As cars weren’t popular or common yet in 1902, her patent that cleared in 1903 didn’t have much mass use yet. Her patent stood for 17 years, which went clear into the beginning of the automobile era.
And, of course, a possible undertone of sexism held Anderson’s invention back. When she pitched the windshield wiper to a Canadian firm, they rejected it. In fact, the firm failed to see the value of the device and even called it distracting to drivers, clearly ignoring the fact that drivers couldn’t see anyways. Which is clearly more dangerous. Anderson never married and never had children, which was unusual for the period, especially in a world that heavily skewed toward men.
Anderson was never able to sell the rights to the invention, even as windshield wipers that were largely like her design became standard equipment well within the timeframe of her 17-year patent. In 1920, her patent expired. Then in 1922, Cadillac used her design as its standard windshield wiper design.
Her memory lives on, and since her death in 1953, recognition for her invention and idea has become commonplace. But no, she never made any money off of inventing one of the most commonly used devices ever made.
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