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Meet the American who invented windshield wipers, Mary Anderson, Alabama entrepreneur

Mary Anderson was born in Alabama months after the tragedy of the Civil War. She helped her state rebuild, then went on to create windshield wipers — long before auto titans realized the potential.

Mary Anderson cleared glass windshields and broke glass ceilings. 

The southern belle, born in Alabama in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, gave the world one of its most widely used safety devices. 

Anderson patented windshield wipers. 

She was, in many ways, a real-life Scarlett O’Hara of "Gone with the Wind" movie fame


Anderson was born to means on a southern plantation but raised in a society devastated by war. 

It was also a society that suffered a tragic loss of human capital. Male capital. More than 1 in 5 military-age men (about 22%) in the Confederacy were killed in the Civil War, according to several sources. 

Southerners responded with indomitable spirit. Anderson was among a new era of entrepreneurs and innovators burning with determination to overcome adversity. 

Many of them were women, later represented by the fictional icon O'Hara. 

Anderson built apartments in Alabama, herded cattle in California and, following a winter trolley trip in New York City, devised a way to keep the world truckin' in a tempest.

"She didn't have a father; she didn't have a husband, and she didn't have a son," one of her descendants, Sara-Scott Wingo, said in a 2017 interview with NPR. 

"And the world was kind of run by men back then."

Mary Elizabeth Anderson was born on Feb. 19, 1866, on Burton Hill Plantation in Greene County, Alabama, to John C. and Rebecca Anderson.

The Civil War had ended only 10 months earlier. The conflict was followed by the economic hardship and social upheaval of the Reconstruction Era across the South. 

The Anderson family suffered its own loss in 1870. Mary was just four years old when her father died. 

"Mary and her sister, Fannie, and mother continued to live off the proceeds from his estate," the late Dr. J. Fred Olive III, of the University of Alabama Birmingham, wrote for the Encyclopedia of Alabama.


The Anderson women moved to Birmingham and entered the real-estate business, building the Fairmont Apartments at the corner of 21st Street and Highland Avenue.

Mary Anderson also sought adventure and/or fortune out west. 

In 1893, at age 27, she moved to Fresno, California, where she spent several years managing a vineyard and cattle ranch before returning to Birmingham. 

She also visited New York City in late 1902 and experienced northern weather, apparently for the first time.

"While riding an electric streetcar during a snowstorm, she noticed that the motorman operating the streetcar was shivering," Charles Carey wrote in the 2002 book, "American Inventors, Entrepreneurs and Business Visionaries."

The author also wrote, "Snow was sticking to the windshield, and he was constantly having to slide open the middle pane so he could wipe off the glass." 


The driver’s vision was impaired, as was his operational ability. The situation created safety hazards for both pedestrians and passengers. 

The winter ride exposed to the winter elements was likely miserable for a woman who spent her life in warmth and sunshine surrounded by Alabama bougainvillea and California farmland.

"Upon returning to Alabama," writes Carey, "Anderson gave much thought to the motorman’s plight."

Anderson spent the next several months devising a way for drivers to clean their windshields while still inside their vehicles. 

She appears to have possessed an innate mechanical capability. There is no indication that Anderson ever trained as a mechanic or engineer

But she emerged with a clever mechanism that displayed many of the hallmarks of windshield wipers today. She applied for the "window cleaning device" patent in June 1903 and received it in Nov. 1903. 

Modern windshield wipers operate via powerful little motors that deliver high torque at low speed with the twist of a knob. Drivers, with Anderson's original device, operated wipers manually with a lever. 

"The lever caused a spring-loaded arm with a rubber blade to swing across the windshield and then back again to [its] original position, thus removing droplets of rain or flakes of snow from the windshield’s surface," noted Lemelson-MIT, a program devoted to innovation, in its online biography of Anderson.


"It is simply necessary for [the driver] to take hold of the handle and turn it in one direction or the other to clean the pane," reads the patent application. 

"Similar devices had been made earlier," Lemelson-MIT noted. But Anderson’s "was the first that actually worked."

Anderson's wiper worked. But it didn't sell. 

The inventor "was teased and laughed at by many people because of her idea for the windshield wipers," said MIT-Lemelson.

Anderson ran into a stonewall of doubt and opposition from the transportation industry and auto titans. 

"We regret to state we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale," said one rejection letter from the Canadian firm of Dinning and Eckenstein.

"Through no fault of her own, her invention was simply ahead of its time, and other companies and entrepreneurs were able to profit off her original ideas," reports the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 

Mary Anderson died on June 27, 1953, at her summer home in Monteagle, Tennessee.

She was 87 years old and is interred at Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham. 

Anderson was a "widely known Birmingham resident and owner of the Fairmont Apartments," said her obituary in the Birmingham Post-Herald.

Her rights to the patent expired in 1920 – just as autos were exploding in popularity and the need to operate them safely in bad weather grew more obvious even to auto titans. 

"In 1922, Cadillac began building cars with windshield wipers as a standard feature," reports the National Inventors Hall of Fame — which inducted Anderson in 2011. 

"The rest of the automotive industry followed suit not long after."

Anderson lived long enough to see the world embrace the vision she had as a young woman in New York City in 1902. 

Windshield wipers today are found on almost every vehicle in the world — planes, trains and automobiles

They're on boats and trolleys too. 

Windshield wipers are frontline troops in defense of public safety. They give us eyesight any time Mother Nature drops a blindfold of snow, sleet or rain around our vehicles' window on the world. 

Anderson’s invention also keeps the economy, the constant flow of goods and services, running 24/7.  


Transportation would come to an immediate halt any time bad weather hit a city, a highway, a state or an entire region, without windshield wipers.  

Anderson’s vision even keeps the beat on memorable moments in our lives and in pop culture.

Songwriter Kris Kristofferson captured the rhythmic reliability of windshield wipers in "Me and Bobby McGee," his atmospheric American anthem about searching for freedom and love on a rainy night in Louisiana. 

"Windshield wipers clapping time/I was holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine/We sang every song that driver knew," Janis Joplin, and other performers, have sung in popular versions of the tune set to the beat of a windshield wiper metronome. 

Windshield wipers are so essential to modern life we don't even notice them — unless they're used as a giant paper-clip for parking tickets. It's perhaps the only flaw in Mary Anderson's essential innovation.

"We're all really proud of her," Sara-Scott Wingo, one of her few descendants, said in her 2017 NPR interview.

"I have three daughters. We talk about Mary Anderson a lot. And we all sort of feel like we want to be open and receptive to sort of our own Mary Anderson moments."

To read more stories in this unique "Meet the American Who…" series from Fox News Digital, click here.

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