Mary Elizabeth Anderson – The woman who saved the windshield


Born February 19th 1866, Mary Elizabeth Anderson is a torch-bearer for female entrepreneurship.

She worked in real estate development, cattle ranching and even ran a vineyard in California.

But she’s probably best remembered as a brilliant innovator and member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

It all started on a snowy New York day back in 1903, when Mary invented the windshield wiper.

And she did it five years before Henry Ford rolled out the first Model T.

An entrepreneurial spirit

Mary was born in Greene County, Alabama shortly after the end of the Civil War.

As a young woman, she helped her mother and sister construct the Fairmont Apartments in Birmingham, Alabama.

Then, in 1903, Mary received some inheritance money – and took it on a trip to New York City.

Mary hoped the exciting metropolis would give her an interesting idea of what to do with her newly acquired money.

She was being driven in the dead of New York winter when she came up with an idea that would make the lives of many a little bit more comfortable and a lot less dangerous.

The birth of the windscreen wiper

Visibility was particularly bad that day, and her driver was pulling out all his tricks to manage the deluge before them.

From sticking his head out of the window to see past his obscured windshield, to regularly stopping the vehicle to clear mounds of snow from it, Mary could see he was becoming increasingly more agitated by the experience.

She was puzzled as to why no one had invented a solution to this basic problem.

So, after she returned to Alabama, she drew up a design for a rubber blade connected to a lever inside the vehicle that the driver would be able to operate.

It featured a counterweight to ensure the wiper was always in contact with the glass, and a spring-loaded lever – which made her version significantly better than anything before it.

So, that same year, her idea for a “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice, or sleet from the window” was awarded a 17-year patent.

Mary knew that her simple fix was going to change the automobile industry ever.

She just needed to convince the right people.

An invention before its time

It’s important to remember that when Mary Anderson invented the windshield wiper, the automobile was still relatively new. Most of them didn’t even go fast enough to require a windshield.

So, when a woman – most of whom didn’t do much driving back then – approached automobile companies with her invention, she wasn’t taken very seriously.

“We do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.”

This was the response she received from a Canadian firm. She had tried to sell them the rights to her invention after her patent had been met with multiple rejections by US based firms.

They were all convinced the windshield wiper was not only an unnecessary addition, but that it would distract drivers!

So, after enduring years of mockery at her apparently preposterous idea, in 1920, her patent expired.

But by then, Henry Ford had helped lead an industrial revolution that had seen the automobile industry explode in popularity.

And with more people driving faster cars, the once ridiculed windshield wiper was being considered very seriously.

The unquenchable innovative spirit

Mary never got to cash in on her brilliant invention.

The corporations, many of whom had once turned her down, were now using her original conception on their cars.

In 1922, Cadillac became the first car manufacturer to adopt the wipers as a standard piece of car equipment.

Mary, on the other hand, spent the rest of her life managing the Fairmont Apartments in Birmingham where she died at the age of 84, a pillar of her community.

However, Mary’s accomplishments lived on in the lives she saved and the people she inspired.

Another female inventor, Charlotte Bridgwood built on what Mary had started when she had her “Storm Windshield Cleaner” patent awarded in 1917 – the first automatic windshield wiper.

Ahead of her time

Mary Anderson beat the entire car industry to the road-safety punch.

She saw a simple problem which was causing distress to some and innovated a solution to it.

At SMLL, this is the kind of innovator we strive to be; open-eyed, constantly curious and on the hunt for the next solution – no matter where it comes from.

Join us today to see how you might make your stamp on the world.