Who Made That Windshield Wiper?
In the winter of 1902, an Alabama woman named Mary Anderson visited New York and was appalled by how the weather slowed down streetcars. Snow and sleet obscured the trolleys’ two-paneled windshields, forcing drivers to open both panes and peer through the gap between them. In her notebook, Anderson sketched out a solution: a squeegee wiper on the outside of the windshield, connected to a lever on the inside.
Anderson patented her invention the following year, but so few people owned automobiles that it attracted little interest. Motorcars were open-air in those days, and windshields were an optional accessory. “The reaction to rain on the windscreen was just to take off the windscreen,” explains Leslie Kendall, curator at the Petersen Automotive Museum. By the time Henry Ford’s Model T took motoring into the mainstream a decade later, Anderson’s “window cleaning device” had been forgotten.
Unto the breach stepped John Oishei, an aspiring playwright who operated a vaudeville theater in Buffalo. While driving his National Roadster on a rainy night in 1916, Oishei hit a cyclist, a “harrowing experience,” he later said, “that imprinted on my mind the definite need for maintaining vision while driving in the rain.” (The cyclist was uninjured.)
Over time, windshield wipers have been re-engineered again and again, in response both to changing windshield designs and to automakers’ desire for enticing new add-ons. But the basic concept remains true to what Anderson sketched aboard that New York trolley in 1902: a squeegee that wipes water from the glass. As one early windshield-wiper advertisement explained: “A Clear Sight Ahead Prevents Accidents. An Undimmed Vision Makes It Easier to Drive.”
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