The story of inventor Mary Anderson is excerpted from my book “Forgotten Tales of Alabama.”
Mary Anderson was born at Burton Hill Plantation in Green County, Alabama on February 19, 1866, and lived a comfortable but unassuming life. Yet upon her death at age 87 on June 27, 1953, her obituary was printed in Time magazine and the New York Times.
Anderson’s claim to fame was an invention from which she never made any money – windshield wipers.
Anderson, who never married, was born to John C. and Rebecca Anderson. After her father died in 1870, she, her mother and sister Fannie lived comfortably from her father’s estate. In 1889, they moved to Birmingham, where they built, ran and lived in the Fairmont Apartments on 21st Street at Highland Avenue.
Anderson lived for a while in California, where she ran a cattle ranch and vineyard but returned to Birmingham in 1890 to help care for an elderly aunt who lived in the apartments. Upon the aunt’s death, the family found a chest of gold and jewelry that allowed them to continue to live without worrying about finances
Anderson apparently used some funds to travel, and she was visiting New York in 1903 when she recognized the need for a device to clean windshields.
Although cars were not common at the time – Henry Ford had not manufactured his Model A and the Model T would not be designed until 1908 – Anderson thought the device could be used for streetcars. She was riding on a streetcar in a snowstorm and noticed the driver had to lower the windshield in order to see the road.
Anderson knew there must be a better way, and she went home and drew a design for a blade operated by a lever inside the streetcar. She was issued patent No. 743,801 for the invention.
While similar devices had been attempted, Anderson’s actually worked and had the added benefit of being removable when weather was nice. Anderson apparently only made one attempt to market her invention in 1905, but was turned down. Some people thought the motion of such wipers would distract drivers; many thought the invention silly.
Within a decade, thousands of people owned cars and mechanical windshield wipers – not the spring-loaded design developed by Anderson – were standard equipment. In 1917, another woman – Charlotte Bridgewood – would patent the first electric wipers, called Storm Windshield Cleaners.
Anderson continued living in the Fairmont Apartments and managed the building until her death. She was on a visit to her summer home in Monteagle, Tennessee, when she died. She is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham.