Mary Anderson was a remarkable woman. She was a real estate developer, cattle farmer and vineyard manager, but her real claim to fame is that she invented something we all rely on – the car windscreen wiper.
Anderson was born in 1866 in Alabama in the wake of the American Civil War. Her father died when she was four years old and she and her mother and sisters continued to live in Greene County on the proceeds of his estate.
In 1889, the family moved to the boom town of Birmingham, Alabama, where Anderson was involved in developing the Fairmont Apartments on Highland Avenue. Then in 1893, she travelled to Fresno, California, to manage a cattle ranch and a vineyard.
She returned to Alabama in 1898 to live with her married sister and around 1900 came into a large inheritance from her aunt, some of which she used to take a trip to New York during the harsh winter of 1902.
It was there that she had the idea for her windscreen wiper. Riding a streetcar on a snowy day, Anderson noticed how the driver had to lean out to clear the snow from the windscreen, sometimes even having to stop to remove the ice. When she returned to Alabama, she hired a designer to come up with a hand-operated device that would clear the windscreen and a local company to produce a working model.
Anderson’s device consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that controlled a rubber blade on the outside of the windscreen. 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 hers was the first to be effective.
In 1903, Anderson applied for, and was granted, a seventeen-year patent for her ‘window cleaning device’ and in 1905 she attempted to sell the rights to her invention to a Canadian company which turned her down saying ‘we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale’.
Having let her patent lapse, Anderson made no money from her invention and continued to live in Birmingham managing the Fairmont Apartments. She died in 1953 at the age of 87 and in 2011 was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.