Forefixers: Windshield Wipers

During the thick of rain-and-snow season, your windshield wipers are as important a piece of safety equipment as your brakes or headlights. But cars didn’t always have the means to ensure our vision wasn’t compromised during inclement weather. Here are three of the inventors who brought about the simple yet ingenious tool we use today.

Mary Anderson and her patented design

Mary Anderson

An Alabaman woman by the name of Mary Anderson happened to be visiting New York City in early 1902. NYC is particularly beautiful in the winter, but the views were obscured because snow was covering the trolley windows. Disturbingly, she noticed that the drivers had to periodically get out to clear off the fluffy white stuff by hand, or (yikes!) stick their heads out the side to see.

That’s when Anderson brainstormed a squeegee-inspired device that would feature a spring-loaded arm and a rubber blade attached to the outside of a vehicle, operable via a handle from the interior to move the arm and clear the glass. In other words, it was the world’s first windshield wiper. She filed a patent in 1903, although her invention was too far ahead of its time and wouldn’t see widespread adoption until more than a decade later, when automobile usage began to become widespread and companies began marketing wipers.

Charlotte Bridgwood

Fast-forward to 1917, when another woman, Charlotte Bridgwood, an engineer and president of a small manufacturing company in New York, took Anderson’s idea one step further. Rather than relying on a manual hand crank to use the wiper, Bridgwood came up with an automated design that drew power directly from the vehicle engine.

Called the Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner (what a name!), it utilized a series of rollers instead of blades to perform a similar task. Like Anderson, Bridgwood did not see commercial success with her creation.

Greg Kinnear, playing Robert Kearns | Universal Pictures

Robert Kearns

In 1953, a grisly Champagne cork accident left Robert Kearns with sight in only one eye. Afterwards, the Wayne State University engineering instructor started thinking more critically of how an eyelid works. “God doesn’t have eyelids move continuously. They blink,” he said in a newspaper interview. Kearns then set out to marry that insight with the workings of the windshield wiper.

After years of tinkering in a home laboratory, he secured several patents and then approached the neighboring Ford Motor Company with his masterpiece: an intermittent wiper that would activate at pre-set intervals. Following several meetings, Ford was eventually the initial automaker to roll out a model boasting the technology, and later many would follow. Kearns never received credit or compensation, until the 1990, after a winning a years-long lawsuit against Ford for patent infringement. Kearns had a fascinating life, and his story was turned into a movie, “Flash of Genius,” starring Greg Kinnear.

Do you know of more windshield wiper innovators? Let us know in the comments.

A behind-the-scenes look at windshield wipers

When it starts to rain, you automatically turn on your wipers (or if you’re fancy, they turn on for you). It happens without a second thought. The earliest drivers, though, couldn’t do that, because wipers didn’t yet exist. It wasn’t until November 10, 1903 that a woman from Birmingham, Alabama named Mary Anderson received a patent for a “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice, or sleet from the windows.”

In other words, windshield wipers.

Windshield wipersWindshield wiper history

History Channel provides more of the backstory of this amazing invention. Anderson was riding a streetcar in New York City, but the driver couldn’t see through his windshield. The windshield was split so that the driver could open it and manually clean off rain, sleet or snow, but passengers shivered and/or got wet in the process.

Anderson knew there had to be a better way and so she devised a set of wooden and rubber wipers operated by a lever located by the steering wheel. This activated a spring loaded arm that cleared off the windshield. These wipers could be removed and used only when necessary.

People laughed at the notion, figuring that these wipers would distract drivers and cause accidents. Anderson tried selling her creation to a manufacturing company who refused, seeing no practical value in a device that cleaned car windows. By 1913, these wipers were found on most cars, but the inventor didn’t profit.

More windshield wiper history: in 1917, Charlotte Bridgewood invented another version of wipers, but she didn’t make any money from her invention, either.

Modern day windshield wipers

It’s hard to imagine not having wipers on your car, and today’s drivers realize that wipers help to prevent accidents rather than causing them.

Editor’s note: When you buy windshield wipers from Advance Auto Parts, our Team Members will install them free (most vehicles, most locations). Find a store.