Tracking Innovation: Windshield Wipers
March is Women’s History Month. In observance, this article spotlights the creation of the windshield wiper blade.
On a visit to New York City at the turn of the 20th century, Mary Anderson was caught in a sudden downpour while riding in one of New York’s famous streetcars. She noticed the driver’s windshield visibility diminished considerably due to rainy weather conditions. As Anderson continued to observe, she saw several streetcar drivers quickly and frantically roll down their windows and stick their heads out, unable to see out of the front windshield due to the rain’s obstruction.
The scuttle of activity and the immediacy of attention given to the situation by the drivers indicated to Anderson that panic was overtaking them in their attempts to clear the rain from their windshields. As Anderson pondered the chain of events occurring before her, she began brainstorming ways to fix a problem that she realized was universal. All Americans who drove cars experienced the same dilemma whenever they drove during inclement weather.
Remember that the nature of personal travel during this time was significantly different. Homes did not have garages for cars—they had a stable for the family horse and buggy. The issue of windshield visibility was a dilemma that had no point of reference. Rolling down the window and sticking one’s head out into the rain was accepted practice.
Anderson sought a better solution. Her task coincided with an emerging modern age that saw car manufacturers increasing production to meet consumer demand. As a result, cars were replacing horses and carriages on city streets, interstate roadways, and rural roads.
Anderson conducted many experiments, with many results not encouraging. She continued to work toward a solution, and the “ah-hah” moment occurred when she imagined a device that used rubber squeegees to remove water from windshields.
After extensive trial and error, Anderson succeeded in producing a revolutionary hand lever device, operated by the driver or a passenger, that used rubber wiper blades to remove rain from car windshields. In addition, the device could be used to remove debris such as mud, dust, snow or sleet. With the installation of the manual windshield wiper device on cars, motorists or passengers no longer needed to stick their hand out the window during inclement weather conditions or pull over and exit the vehicle in order to remove debris from the windshield.
Anderson was granted U.S. patent number 743,801 for her novel windshield wiper in November of 1903. By 1916, windshield wipers were standard equipment on all American cars.
Although upgrades continue to be made to the windshield wiper, the basic principle and function that Anderson invented remains unchanged. Some notable enhancements include automatic wipers, which were patented in 1917 by Charlotte Bridgwood; intermittent wipers, which were patented by Robert W. Kearns in 1967; and heated windshield wiper blades. Windshield blades are also now available in silicone rubber.
Thanks to the patented technology of the windshield wiper by Mary Anderson, modern car drivers, airplane pilots, and even spacecraft astronauts can see clearly when driving or flying in inclement weather.