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Alabama Woman Stuck In NYC Traffic In 1902 Invented The Windshield Wiper

Mary Anderson's illustration of her 1903 patented "window cleaning device."
The United States Patent and Trademark Office
Mary Anderson's illustration of her 1903 patented "window cleaning device."

Even the most commonplace devices in our world had to be invented by someone.

Take the windshield wiper. It may seem hard to imagine a world without windshield wipers, but there was one, and Mary Anderson lived in that world.

In 1902, Anderson was visiting New York City.

"She was riding a streetcar and it was snowing," says the Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va., and Anderson's great-great-niece. Wingo never met Anderson, but the story of the invention was passed down to her.

Wingo says while Anderson was riding the streetcar that snowy day, "She observed that the streetcar driver had to get out and continually clean off the windshield."

Naturally, that caused delays, and got Anderson wondering: What if there were some sort of blade that could wipe off the windshield without making the driver get out of the streetcar?

Anderson went back to Birmingham, made a sketch of her device, and wrote up a description of it. Then she applied for a patent.

The patent application describes how the wiper was to be operated by a handle inside the vestibule of the motor car, and be easily removable — "thus leaving nothing to mar the usual appearance of the car during fair weather," according to patent language.

The application was filed June 18, 1903. On November 10, 1903, the United States Patent Office awarded Anderson patent number 743,801 for her Window Cleaning Device.

Wingo says her great-great-aunt tried to interest manufacturing firms in making this device for the emerging motorcar industry, but got no takers. A letter from the firm of Dinning and Eckenstein is one of Wingo's prized possessions.

"Dear madam," the letter begins," We beg to acknowledge receipt of your recent favor with reference to the sale of your patent. In reply, we regret to state we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale."

Alabama native Mary Anderson (1866-1953) is credited with inventing the first operational windshield wiper.
/ Encylopedia of Alabama
Encylopedia of Alabama
Alabama native Mary Anderson (1866-1953) is credited with inventing the first operational windshield wiper.

"They missed out," says Wingo. "Don't you think?"

Wingo doesn't know for sure why Anderson's invention never went anywhere, but she suspects 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 says. "And the world was kind of run by men back then."

It doesn't seem as if Mary Anderson was the sort of woman to be crushed by the rejections. She lived another 50 years, long enough to see windshield wipers become ubiquitous.

Certainly Anderson's accomplishments loom large for Wingo and her family.

"We're all really proud of her," says Wingo. "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."

If Anderson didn't get any money for her invention, at least she finally got some credit. In 2011 she was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
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