Updated:
Original:
Year
1903

Mary Anderson patents windshield wiper

On this day, the patent office awards U.S. Patent No. 743,801 to a Birmingham, Alabama woman named Mary Anderson for her “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window.” When she received her patent, Anderson tried to sell it to a Canadian manufacturing firm, but the company refused: The device had no practical value, it said, and so was not worth any money. Though mechanical windshield wipers were standard equipment in passenger cars by around 1913, Anderson never profited from the invention.

As the story goes, on a freezing, wet winter day around the turn of the century, Mary Anderson was riding a streetcar on a visit to New York City when she noticed that the driver could hardly see through his sleet-encrusted front windshield. Although the trolley’s front window was designed for bad-weather visibility—it was split into parts so that the driver could open it, moving the snow- or rain-covered section out of his line of vision—in fact the multi-pane windshield system worked very poorly. It exposed the driver’s uncovered face (not to mention all the passengers sitting in the front of the trolley) to the inclement weather, and did not improve his ability to see where he was going in any case.

Anderson began to sketch her wiper device right there on the streetcar. After a number of false starts, she came up with a prototype that worked: a set of wiper arms that were made of wood and rubber and attached to a lever near the steering wheel of the drivers’ side. When the driver pulled the lever, she dragged the spring-loaded arm across the window and back again, clearing away raindrops, snowflakes or other debris. When winter was over, Anderson’s wipers could be removed and stored until the next year. (This feature was presumably designed to appeal to people who lived in places where it did not rain in the summertime.)

People scoffed at Anderson’s invention, saying that the wipers’ movement would distract the driver and cause accidents. Her patent expired before she could entice anyone to use her idea.

In 1917, a woman named Charlotte Bridgewood patented the “Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner,” an automatic wiper system that used rollers instead of blades. (Bridgewood’s daughter, the actress Florence Lawrence, had invented the turn signal.) Like Anderson, Bridgewood never made any money from her invention.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Playwright and activist hanged in Nigeria

Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian playwright and environmental activist, is hanged in Nigeria along with eight other activists from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop). Saro-Wiwa, an outspoken critic of Nigeria’s military regime, was charged by the government with ...read more

Sesame Street debuts

On this day in 1969, “Sesame Street,” a pioneering TV show that would teach generations of young children the alphabet and how to count, makes its broadcast debut. “Sesame Street,” with its memorable theme song (“Can you tell me how to get/How to get to Sesame Street”), went on ...read more

Maryland gets a miracle in Miami

On November 10, 1984, at the Orange Bowl, the University of Maryland’s backup quarterback Frank Reich throws six touchdown passes against the University of Miami in the second half, completing an improbable comeback. The Terrapins, who had been losing 31-0 at the half, ended up ...read more

Henry Wirz hanged

On this day in 1865, Henry Wirz, a Swiss immigrant and the commander of Andersonville prison in Georgia, is hanged for the murder of soldiers incarcerated there during the Civil War. Wirz was born in Switzerland in 1823 andmoved to the United States in 1849. He lived in the ...read more

Birth of the U.S. Marine Corps

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress passes a resolution stating that “two Battalions of Marines be raised” for service as landing forces for the recently formed Continental Navy. The resolution, drafted by future U.S. president John Adams and adopted in ...read more

Germans take Vichy France

On this day in 1942, German troops occupy Vichy France, which had previously been free of an Axis military presence. Since July 1940, upon being invaded and defeated by Nazi German forces, the autonomous French state had been split into two regions. One was occupied by German ...read more