It was a typically nasty winter day — wet and cold — in New York City at the dawn of the 20th century, when Mary Anderson, an out-of-towner took a typical tourist trolley ride. There wasn’t a whole lot to see with sleet clinging to the windows. In fact, Mary observed that the driver of the streetcar himself could barely see through the front windshield. The trolley’s front window had supposedly been designed for bad-weather visibility: it was made up of individual panes that could be opened when covered by rain or snow, allowing the driver to peer out through the opening. Hardly high tech. Not only did it do little to improve the driver’s ability to see where he was going, it left him with an ice-encrusted face, and chilled the passengers as well.
Right there, while sitting in the cold trolley, Mary began to sketch a mechanical device that would wipe the trolley’s windshield. Her invention had arms made of wood and rubber that were attached to a lever near the steering wheel of the drivers’ side. By pulling the lever, the driver could drag the spring-loaded arm across the window and back again, wiping away raindrops, snowflakes, sleet, dead birds, what-have-you. The wipers could easily be removed when meteorologists prophesied sunny skies.
Mary returned home to Birmingham, Alabama, and applied for a patent. On November 10, 1903, she received U.S. Patent No. 743,801 for her “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window.” Alas, she was an inventor ahead of her time. She made not a penny for her cleverness. And yet within ten years windshield wipers were standard issue in passenger cars everywhere.
In 1917, another woman, Charlotte Bridgewood, patented the “Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner,” an automatic wiper system that used rollers instead of blades. (Her daughter had already invented the turn signal.) But like Mary Anderson, Charlotte Bridgewood never made any money from her invention. Another type of automatic windshield wiper came onto the scene in 1921. Called “Folberths,” after their inventors, these wipers were powered by a device connected by a tube to the inlet pipe of the car’s motor.
The male Folberths profited from their invention, which may lead some to believe that wiping devices were at work on glass ceilings as well as windshields.