There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Two

Mary Anderson (1866 – 1953)

It’s an everyday scene. You jump into your car, notice the windscreen is a bit smeared, so you flick a switch and two mechanical arms, fixed to the exterior of your car, spring into action and clear it for you. When it is raining or snowing, the windscreen wipers are invaluable to help you see where you are going. But have you ever considered whose brainwave the wipers were?

This is where the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Alabama born Mary Anderson, comes in.

While in New York during the winter of 1902 Mary was travelling on a trolley car and it was sleeting. The stately progress of the vehicle was interrupted every now and again because the driver had to get out and clear the front window of the snow and ice that had accumulated. Instead of fuming about the delay that this operation caused to her journey, Mary started wondering whether some kind of blade could be produced which the driver could operate from inside the trolley car, allowing him to clear the screen without having to stop and start the vehicle.

Food for thought, indeed.

When she got back to Birmingham, Alabama, Mary’s musings were sufficiently advanced that she was able to commit a rudimentary design to paper. She then wrote a description of how it might work and hired a local company to make a working model. It was remarkably simple, consisting of a lever fixed to the inside of the vehicle which controlled a rubber blade fixed to the exterior of the windscreen. By controlling the lever, the blade, which was counterweighted to ensure contact, would go back and forth across the windscreen, clearing it of any obstructions. The blade was detachable, “thus leaving nothing to mar the usual appearance of the car during fair weather.

On 18th June 1903 Mary submitted her application for a patent for what she quaintly described as a Window Cleaning Device. In the supporting documentation Anderson described how the wiper was to be operated by a handle inside the vehicle which was detachable.

On 10th November she was notified by the United States Patent Office that a patent had been granted, number 743,801, and that she had exclusive rights over her invention for 17 years.

But, as we have seen before, inventing something is the easy part. Making a commercial success of it is another kettle of fish altogether.

Mary started searching for commercial partners but, surprisingly, found no takers. Rather like an aspiring author seeking a publisher, she received rejections by the sack full. Perhaps the letter she received from the Montreal firm, Dinning and Eckstein, on 20th June 1905 was typical; “we beg to acknowledge receipt of your recent favor with reference to the sale of your patent. In reply, we regret to state we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.”

So that was that and Mary seems to have abandoned her attempts to put her invention into production, concentrating on managing some flats she had built instead.

Her patent expired in 1920. By that time many more people owned cars and vehicle manufacturers were looking to enhance the specifications of their models. In 1922 Cadillac was the first to include windscreen wipers on all of their models and soon they became standard equipment. The timing of their adoption was not coincidental, depriving Mary of cashing in on her simple but essential invention.

It was not until 2011 that Mary’s contribution to automobile safety was recognised by the Hall of Inventors, making her a worthy inductee into our equally illustrious Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone


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