Mary Anderson Patents the Windshield Wiper (1903)
Mary Anderson (February 19, 1866 – June 27, 1953) was an American real estate developer, rancher, viticulturist and inventorof the windshield wiper blade. In November 1903 Anderson was granted her first patent for an automatic car window cleaning device controlled from inside the car, called the windshield wiper.
Mary Anderson was born in Greene County, Alabama, at the start of Reconstruction in 1866. In 1889 she moved with her widowed mother and sister to the booming town of Birmingham, Alabama. She built the Fairmont Apartments on Highland Avenue soon after settling in. By 1893, Mary Anderson had moved west to Fresno, California until 1898 where she then she operated a cattle ranch and vineyard.
Invention of the windshield wiper
In a visit to New York City in the winter of 1902, in a trolley car on a frosty day, she observed that the motorman drove with both panes of the double front window open because of difficulty keeping the windshield clear of falling sleet. 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. 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. Similar devices had been made earlier, but Anderson’s was the first to be effective.
In 1905 Anderson tried to sell the rights to her invention through a noted Canadian firm, but they rejected her application saying “we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.” After the patent expired in 1920 and the automobile manufacturing business grew exponentially, windshield wipers using Anderson’s basic design became standard equipment. In 1922, Cadillac became the first car manufacturer to adopt them as standard equipment.
Anderson resided in Birmingham, where she continued to manage the Fairmont Apartments until her death at the age of 87. At the time of her death she was the oldest member of South Highland Presbyterian Church. She died at her summer home in Monteagle, Tennessee. Her funeral was conducted by Dr. Frank A Mathes at South Highland and she was buried at Elmwood Cemetery.
In popular culture
Anderson’s invention of the windshield wiper is mentioned in Season 17, Episode 19: “Girls Just Want to Have Sums,” of the cartoon The Simpsons, during a debate between Marge Simpson and her husband and son, Homer and Bart, about gender equality:
- Marge: “Well, a woman also invented the windshield wiper!”
- Homer: “Which goes great with another male invention, the car!”
Anderson’s windshield wiper invention is also briefly mentioned on the British panel/quiz show; QI (Quite Interesting); Season 10, Episode 16 – “Just the Job”.
“When was the windshield wiper invented?” was the Weather Channel “Question of the Day” for July 6, 2016.
NPR’s Morning Edition produced a profile, including an interview with her great-great-niece into her legacy and societal context on July 25, 2017. 
In 2011 she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
- Obituary, Birmingham Post-Herald, June 29, 1953
- United States Patent 743,801, Issue Date: November 10, 1903
- Women Hold Patents on Important Inventions; USPTO recognizes inventive women during Women’s History Month, United States Patent and Trademark Office press release #02-16, March 1, 2002, accessed March 3, 2009
- Slater, Dashka, Who made that? Windshield Wiper, New York Times Magazine, September 14, 2014, p.22
- “Hall of Fame Inventor Profile: Mary Anderson”. Invent Now Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 2013-05-07.
- Mary Anderson: Windshield Wipers, September 2001, Inventor of the Week Archive, Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Engineering website, accessed March 3, 2009
- “Girls Just Want to Have Sums“. The Simpsons. April 30, 2006. Fox.
- Palca, Joe (25 July 2017). “Alabama Woman Stuck In NYC Traffic In 1902 Invented The Windshield Wiper”. Morning Edition. National Public Radio. Retrieved 25 July 2017.
- “Spotlight | National Inventors Hall of Fame”. Invent.org. 2013-11-21. Retrieved 2016-05-28.