A woman behind the wheel looks at a mechanical windshield wiper, during the 30s. Photo: Stapleton Private Collection.

History of the Windshield Wiper: Mary Anderson's Scorned Patent

Mary Anderson wanted to avoid the ordeal of inclement weather for streetcar drivers, and that's why she invented the windshield wiper. However, the patent for the ingenious mechanism was never honored.

By land (and under it), sea and air. they have something in common the modern means of transport that travel the length and breadth of the planet which, without being their main displacement mechanism, greatly facilitates it. And it is that absolutely everyone has one, two, three or even more… wiper.

Here we tell you the story of how the windshield wiper was born, because this element so evident to us did not fall from heaven; what's more, it was quite earthly. The front glass cleaning system was at first as obvious as it was impractical: a dry cloth that had to be passed every few minutes to avoid a more than dangerous lack of vision.

Tram similar to the model in which Mary Anderson traveled at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, circulating through New York City.
Tram similar to the model in which Mary Anderson traveled at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, circulating through New York City.

Who and how came to have the happy initiative to stop to think that this was not exactly the right path? If you want an answer, you have to go back to the beginning of the last century and move to the cold winter days of New York City.


There, traveling in a tram, an unknown tourist and young passenger from Alabama named Mary Anderson I watched as the driver had to get out every few feet to try to keep the vehicle's windshield clean. Between stops, with the consequent delay in the journey, he realized that, even with everything, the glass was designed to be able to fight against the low visibility caused by the accumulation of snow and ice.

The system was simple: the glass was divided into two parts, so that the driver could open it and remove snow or rain from his line of sight. However, the windshield multipanel gave a very poor result and, furthermore, it left the driver's face exposed to inclement weather, with a very similar effect on the passengers who were in the first rows.

Seeing this, Mary began to think of ways to avoid such an ordeal for streetcar drivers. And, after a series of failed ideas, he designed a new system that consisted, basically, of a wooden arm to which a rubber band had been added, which, mounted on a handle that made a spring extend, was placed on one side of the driver's steering wheel.

Windshield wiper installed on a 1920's vehicle
Windshield wiper fitted to a 1920's vehicle.

When inclement weather or any other remains adhered to the glass and began to impede vision, the driver pulled the device and the spring contracted; then he released it, and the device returned to its initial position to repeat the process over and over again.

When winter ended the system was dismantled until the following year, so, initially, it was thought for places where it presumably did not rain in summer.


Despite the fact that the entry in the files appears as the initial date of June 18, 1903, it would not be until November 10 of that same year when the Birmingham, Alabama patent office, will register the number 743.801 corresponding to an invention in the name of Mary Anderson. The description was as follows: «A glass cleaning system for trams and other vehicles, used to remove snow, ice or slush from the glass».

When Mary finally got the patent, tried to sell it to a canadian companybut the offer was rejected...

Mary Richardson's patent, filed November 10, 1903
Mary Richardson's patent, registered November 10, 1903.

In the middle of the registration process Henry Ford appeared on the scene. In June 1903, this young entrepreneur began assembling Model A vehicles, whose first copies he began to sell in Detroit just a month later. It seems that then Ford came to have indirect knowledge of the invention of the windshield wiper, although according to various sources, he never knew where it came from and therefore never got to know Mary Anderson.

From now on, There is speculation about whether the American genius did not know or did not want to know that there was a previous registration that gave way to the definitive patent. Be that as it may, ignorant or plagiarist, but always faithful to his innovative destiny, he interpreted his utility and tested it on the prototypes of the Ford T with windshields. Later, from 1908, the year the production of the massive model began, all the units would leave the factory with this device.

On the other hand, people contributed their "grain of sand", and soon critical opinions began to be heard saying that the movement of that mechanism could distract the driver and cause accidents. Partly thanks to it, Mary Anderson's patent would expire before she could convince anyone to use the idea.

Manual windshield wiper installed on a Jeep
Manual windshield wiper installed on a Jeep.

And despite the fact that in 1913 the mechanical windshield wiper became standard equipment on all trams, and in 1916 on automobiles, Anderson never received financial benefit some by his invention.

In 1917, a woman named Charlotte Bridgewood patented the "electrical storm cleaner", that is, an automatic wiper that used rollers instead of wooden and rubber arms. As an anecdotal fact, it should be noted that Charlotte's daughter, actress Florence Lawrence, invented the turn signal that led to the well-known intermittent.

Like Mary Anderson, Bridgewood never received any financial rewards for her invention. Today it seems that, at least, we are beginning to give them credit.

Main image credit: Stapleton Private Collection

Written by Albert Ferreras

Alberto Ferreras (Madrid, 1968) developed his professional career in the newspaper El País since 1988, where he worked as a graphic editor and editor of the supplement Motor until January 2011. Graduated in Photography, he was a finalist for the Ortega y Gasset Award of ... Menú

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