It's an everyday item that often gets overlooked, but without it, we wouldn't be able to see outside car windshields on rainy or snowy days. However, even simple, commonplace devices have incredible stories and people behind them.
The windshield wiper invention process started with a middle-aged woman in 1902 in a snowstorm. She received very little credit for her invention while alive. The windshield wiper we know and utilize today did not exist until 1953. However, it wasn't until the 1970s that it went into mainstream production with multiple carmakers.
If you've ever wondered where those wipers from your windshield truly came from, then you are in luck! This article will dive into the deep history of the windshield wiper invention and the faces behind it.
Who Invented Windshield Wipers?
A middle-aged woman from Alabama was on her way around New York in a streetcar when the idea for windshield wipers came to her mind.
Mary Anderson was an independent, self-made woman who worked as a real estate developer, viticulturist, and rancher. At around age 36, she was stuck in NYC traffic on a streetcar during snowfall. The driver regularly had to leave the car or open the window to wipe the snow off the front with his hand to improve visibility so they could keep moving.
Anderson noted the cause of this delay and wondered if there was a way to improve the system. Perhaps with a blade attached to the car that could be operated from inside, removing the need for the driver to leave the vehicle. She began to sketch her idea while still in the streetcar.
How Did the First Windshield Wiping Device Work?
When Anderson returned home to Birmingham, Alabama, she sat down to design the device. While many false starts and results were less than favorable, she finally got a working prototype.
Her first working prototype involved wooden and rubber wiping arms attached to a lever. A handle near the wheel activated the lever. The driver would pull on the handle to activate the wipers, starting a arm loaded with springs to slide across the windshield.
Her design was easy to remove and store for those who lived in climates that did not see much rain or snow.
Mary Anderson Patents Her Creation
Mary Anderson submitted her patent application to the United States Patent Office on June 18th, 1903. Five months later, on November 10th, the Patent Office gave Anderson's invention patent number 743,801.
The official name of her invention was the "window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window."
After patenting, the next step was manufacturing. With her patent finally in hand, Anderson tried appealing to a Canadian manufacturing firm, but they promptly refused. They saw no commercial value or appeal in her product.
Anderson was unable to convince any manufacturer to undertake her design. Some even scoffed at her, saying it was a dangerous device that could cause accidents. In a male-dominated world, Anderson lacked the voice to be heard and respected. She had no husband and no sons to back her up.
In 1920 the patent expired. Although she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011, Anderson was never able to interest anyone in purchasing her idea and never saw a cent from her invention.
The Invention of Automatic Windshield Wipers
Inventor, manufacturing president, and vaudeville performer Charlotte Bridgwood patented the first automatic windshield wiper. She patented her "Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner" in 1917. Bridgwood was an automobile enthusiast and president of Bridgwood Manufacturing Company. She saw Anderson's idea and wanted to improve it.
Bridgwood's automatic system utilized rollers in place of wooden and rubber blades. The idea of rollers did not catch on. Due to a lack of commercial production, her patent expired only three years later.
Ohio brothers William M. and Fred Folberth patented the first automatic windshield wiper to utilize blades. The brothers invented their wiper in 1919 but did not receive a patent until mid-1921. Before they received the patent, William M. Folberth went ahead with manufacturing companies to start production.
The Folberth brother's windshield wiper invention was not a reliable product. It utilized air from the engine to move, meaning that when the car drove slowly, the wiper was slow, and vice versa. Drivers wanted something more consistent.
The Invention of Automatic Intermittent Windshield Wipers
In 1953, after a host of other windshield wiper designs by others, a young engineer named Robert Kearn was popped in the eye by a champagne cork on his wedding night- which he credits as his inspiration for intermittent windshield wipers. He asked himself, "why can't a wiper work like an eyelid?"
He designed a device to blink away rain, snow, and debris from windshields whenever needed. His idea would end up on millions of cars across the nation. He patented the idea in 1964 under patent number 3,351,836.
Kearn presented his prototype to Ford Motors. The company's engineers were very impressed but sent Kearn out of the room to discuss how it worked. Many believed he was secretly pressing a button in his pockets to operate the machine.
When Did Windshield Wipers Become Common on Cars?
Kearn's invention of intermittent windshield wipers took off. Ford Motors immediately went into production on his idea. However, Kearn did not receive compensation from Ford.
Car companies around the country started to utilize his invention in their newest models. Despite having a patent on the device, Kearn's idea had slipped out of his grip, leading to multiple disputes between him and American car companies.
As the 1970s rolled around, every car produced contained intermittent windshield-wiping technology. Kearn filed lawsuits against multiple car-making companies for licensing fees. He won millions of dollars from the suits after decades of litigation battles. He claimed, however, that the main goal was never to get a ton of money but to defend the patented rights and system.
A series of inventors led up to what we now know as modern windshield wipers. However, the idea started with a woman named Mary Anderson sitting in traffic during a snowstorm.