To be clear, an Alabama woman invented windshield wipers

Mary Anderson's illustration of her 1903 patented "window cleaning device."

Maybe you’ve heard of Robert Kearns. If so, likely not prior to 2008—when the movie Flash of Genius chronicled Kearns’ 1950s invention of intermittent windshield wipers and his David vs. Goliath lawsuit against America’s automotive giants—but whatever the timeline, his is a fascinating story.

For those who aren’t aware, Kearns was ultimately awarded $30 million in compensation for the use of his invention, but the decades-long public court battle took its toll. He suffered from mental illness and personal issues and died of brain cancer in 2005 at the age of 77.

More than 20 years before Kearns was born, the original inventor of the windshield wiper, Mary Anderson, was equally dismissed by the auto industry, but her story isn’t as well known. Anderson was a successful business woman long before that was common, and as a real estate developer, rancher, and vineyard owner, she wasn’t as reliant upon the success or failure of her invention as Kearns was his.

Mary Anderson
Encyclopedia of Alabama
Mary Anderson

On November 10, 1903—115 years ago today—the 37-year-old Anderson was awarded U.S. Patent No. 743,801 for her “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice, or sleet from the window.” Oddly enough, Anderson lived in mild-weather Alabama and came up with the wiper idea while on a trip to New York City in 1902. She was riding a streetcar on a snowy day and noticed the driver was struggling to see through the ice-covered windshield. The multi-pane glass was designed so the driver could open a window and look through, but everyone sitting at the front of the trolley was thus exposed to the inclement weather.   

According to History.com, Anderson began sketching her wiper invention right then and there. After some early failures, she came up with a prototype that worked—a set of wiper arms made of wood and rubber, attached to a lever near the steering wheel on the drivers’ side. When the driver pulled the lever, the spring-loaded arm dragged across the window and back again, clearing away rain, snow, and debris.

windshield wipers
Sunnie Schwartz

After Anderson received a patent in 1903, she attempted to sell her idea to a manufacturer, but she was told it wasn’t practical. In fact, it was suggested the wipers were actually dangerous since they could distract the driver and cause an accident. With little incentive to push forward with the idea, Anderson focused her attention elsewhere and let the patent expire in 1920. Before long, mechanical windshield wipers became standard equipment in passenger cars.

Anderson never profited from her invention, but she secured her place in automotive history and earned the gratitude of drivers all over the world.