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In 1866, during the early days of the Reconstruction, a baby girl named Mary Anderson was born. She lived on Burton Hill Plantation in Greene County, Alabama. When she was 23 she moved her widowed mother and sister to Birmingham, Alabama. There they opened the Fairmont Apartments. Then the song of the West called to her. In 1893 she answered that call. She moved to Fresno, California and operated a cattle ranch and vineyard.
After only 5 years, Miss Anderson returned home. She then continued running the Fairmont Apartments with her mother. Mary became an important business-woman in Birmingham. She was also a respected member of South Highland Presbyterian Church.
The turn-of-the century came. It brought the promise of amazing discoveries to come. During the
winter of 1902 Miss Anderson found herself on a trolley car in New York City. The blustery wind and biting sleet chilled her. She wondered why the trolley driver didn’t shut the front windows. Upon further investigation, she discovered that it was the only way to see. Sleet would collect on the window and obstruct the view.
Back in Alabama, Mary contemplated this problem. The solution she developed: a hand-operated device that consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that was attached to a rubber blade on the outside of the windshield. She hired a designer to make a working model of her invention. Then she secured a 17-year patent for her windshield wiper in 1903. Her model wasn’t the first device of its kind to be invented, but it was the only one that actually worked effectively.
As with many great innovations, her device was ahead of its time. She tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the rights to her invention to a firm from Canada. They deemed the invention not worth the trouble to implement. The patent expired in 1920, just about the time that the automobile industry boomed. Automobiles became more common and people demanded more features. Windshield wipers using Miss Anderson’s basic design were incorporated. Cadillac made them standard equipment in their 1922 model. Soon all other automobile manufacturers followed.
It’s a shame that she wasn’t able to sell her amazing invention. However she is credited as the inventor of the windshield wiper. She lived long enough to see her invention in use. Mary Anderson never married and as far as we know she never created another invention. She lived out her days as the owner of the Fairmont Apartments on Highland Avenue. She died in 1953 at her summer home in Monteagle, Tennessee, at the age of 87.
We use our windshield wipers quite frequently, never knowing that we owe that amazing device to a relatively unknown woman from Alabama. Her entrepreneurial spirit lives on today in the hearts of inventors. They too wait for their ideas to catch on. Mary Anderson was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.