Retrospect: An Alabama woman invents a standard part on today’s autos

Mary Anderson invented the windshield wiper, filing a patent in 1903

Mary Anderson. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives & History.

Many modern conveniences are today taken for granted. There was, of course, a time without air conditioning. There was sentient life before television sets. In 1903, an ingenious Alabama woman patented an early version of one such overlooked, everyday item: the windshield wiper. Though her particular model was never put into commercial production, Mary Anderson’s invention helped clear the way for one of modern transportation’s most important, if ubiquitous, instruments. 

She was the youngest child of James and Rebecca Anderson of Greene County. Born in South Carolina in 1828, James Anderson owned a plantation near Forkland. He married Rebecca McLemore in January 1861, just days after Alabama voted to secede from the Union. The next year, he mustered into the 2nd Alabama Cavalry as a lieutenant and served for the duration of the Civil War.

James Alexander died in February 1870 at the young age of 41, just two weeks after his daughter Mary’s 4th birthday. In the 1880s, Rebecca Anderson sold her Greene County property and relocated to Birmingham with her two young girls. They settled into a comfortable life in Birmingham, in a well-appointed home along Highland Avenue. Rebecca Anderson never remarried. She and her daughters engaged in philanthropic and society work. They were active members of South Highland Presbyterian Church.

In 1892, Mary’s older sister, Frances, married George P. Thornton, a local mill operator. The couple soon embarked upon a new life in faraway California. Two years later, Rebecca and Mary Anderson leased their Birmingham home and joined the Thorntons in the Golden State for an extended stay. The Anderson women kept up appearances while in California, joining the Fresno society set. Industrious Mary Anderson, then in her late 20s, also tried her hand at running a cattle ranch and vineyard. Obligations to older family members back in Alabama may have necessitated the Andersons’ return to Birmingham in the fall of 1898.

A trip to New York City on a cold and rainy day a few years later sparked Mary Anderson’s inventive spirit. While riding through the bustling streets on a trolley, she observed the poor driver’s belabored efforts to clean the windshield by hand every few minutes. He would disembark the vehicle, brave the elements and sweep the glass clear with a long-handled brush. This, of course, added considerable time to the commute and could be dangerous. Surely there was a better way, Anderson mused. Back in Birmingham, she put her thoughts to paper. Invention has many mothers. Necessity is one. So is frustration. And so is good will. Anderson returned from New York possessing a bit of all three, it seems.   

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From Mary Anderson’s patent application for the windshield wiper. Photo from the U.S. Patent Office.

Her mechanical remedy was comprised of a long blade that would sweep across the windshield, mimicking the motions of the New York City driver. A lever located inside the vehicle operated the simple device. Her design laid the foundation for the wipers still in use today.

On June 18, 1903, Anderson filed a patent application for her “Window-Cleaning Device.” She noted it was designed to be “rendered easily removable when not required.” Thus, in fair weather it would not “mar the usual appearance” of the vehicle.

Tuscaloosa native William A. Jackson and his fiancé, Nettie Anderson, who was Anderson’s niece, served as witnesses to the patent application. The paperwork, complete with a detailed drawing, then disappeared into the vast bureaucracy of the United States Patent Office. Five quiet months passed before Anderson received notification of her success. Patent number 743,801, issued on Nov. 10, 1903, belonged to her. According to the national registry, four Alabamians received patents that week; Mary Anderson was the only woman among them. At the time, women inventors held less than 10% of the nation’s patents. 

Only one attempt to market Anderson’s device commercially survives in the historical record, this in the form of a 1905 rejection letter from the Canadian firm of Dinning & Eckenstein. “We do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale,” it read. Anderson’s patent expired in 1920 without fanfare.

New, electric wiper models from other inventors were already in development. In 1922, Cadillac became the first major automobile manufacturer to make wipers standard-issue equipment. Anderson never filed another patent, content with her place in the historical record, if nothing else. 

The erstwhile inventor settled into a quiet life in Birmingham. An enumerator for the 1910 Census found the entire Anderson family reunited once more on Highland Avenue. Rebecca and Mary Anderson, as well as George and Frances Thornton and their teenage daughter, all lived under one roof.

The Anderson women used their resources wisely. In 1913, they opened the luxurious Fairmont Apartments at the corner of Highland and 21st Street. “Excellence of location, elegance of appointment, convenience of arrangement, and amplitude of space make this one of the most desirable places in which to live,” read an announcement. The apartments featured all the modern conveniences of the era, including hot and cold water, gas-fueled appliances and janitorial services.

Once the Fairmont opened, 46-year-old Mary Anderson settled into the role of senior property manager. Over the next several decades, she split her time between the Fairmont and a summer home in Monteagle, Tennessee, where she died in June 1953 after a brief illness. She was 87 years old.

Newspapers in several states took note of her passing. Most of the obituaries mentioned her 1903 invention. By the time of Anderson’s death, windshield wipers were standard-issue pieces for all American automobiles. Her invention a half-century earlier was, quite simply, ahead of its time. In the year Anderson received her patent, there were fewer than 35,000 automobiles on American roads. The year she died, that number exceeded 25 million — all of them fitted with windshield wipers. The pioneering Alabama inventor received no monetary reward for her important contribution to the automobile industry.

Still, recognition at least came, both in life and in death. In 2011, Mary Anderson was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka. 

This article appears in the March 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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