Alabama woman granted patent for windshield wiper

November 9, 2021

November 10, 1903

On this day, an Alabama woman receives an initial patent for an invention born out of a stormy day in
New York City.
The first lady of windshield wipers (and why she never earned a penny for the idea).

The Genesis

  • Mary Anderson was visiting friends in New York City about one year earlier.
  • “She was riding a streetcar and it was snowing … She observed that the streetcar driver had to get out and continually clean off the windshield.” – Anderson’s great-grandniece, Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo.
  • In that moment, the idea for the windshield wiper was born.
“… a radially-swinging arm is actuated by a handle from the inside of a car-vestibule; and the objects of my invention are as follows: first, to provide a device operating on the outside of the glass to remove snow, rain, or sleet …"

After returning home, Mary Anderson sketched her vision and sent it into the U.S. Patent Office. They granted her Patent Number 743,801: Window Cleaning Device. Anderson’s device was manually operated from inside the car.

"Dear Madam …"

  • Anderson’s 17-year patent expired in 1920.
  • Before its expiration, she attempted to sell it to manufacturing firms. One response: “Dear Madam … In reply we regret to state that we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.”
  • By the 1920s, windshield wipers had become a staple in most U.S. vehicles.
  • While Anderson never saw a penny, she found success managing real estate and operating a winery and a cattle ranch in California.

Anderson was inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2011. Another woman, New Yorker Charlotte Bridgwood, patented the automatic version in 1918 – but likewise received little to no recognition. Detroit-area engineer Robert Kearns claimed he was the brainchild behind the modern “intermittent windshield wiper” (they pause between swipes). For decades, he fought with top automakers to get credit for his invention, eventually receiving tens of millions of dollars, but never the recognition, nor opportunity, he sought.

“Alabama woman stuck in NYC traffic in 1902 invented the windshield wiper” (NPR)

Mary Anderson’s patent

Rejection letter to Mary Anderson

Tennessee Star on Anderson

Charlotte Bridgwood patent for automatic “Windshield Cleaning Device”

“Millions of dollars can’t wipe away the pain” (Baltimore Sun article on Robert Kearns)

by Jenna Lee,