Mary Anderson, Southern Bell

Theresa H. Morr

Mary Anderson must have been quite a gal back in 1903. Women weren't even voting then. They were still in long dresses, and did what was expected of them. After all, the men in their lives had long ago decided women were put on this planet for making babies, doing laundry, and all the rest. But Mary Anderson, not to be confused with a labor organizer of the same name but rather a southern Alabama belle, showed them she had the moxie to do great things.

When on trips to New York City, Mary often traveled by streetcar. That's where she noticed how drivers would often get out of their seats to wipe the windshield so they could see better. That action set Mary's inquisitive mind afire. If drivers had to wipe dust off the windows on normal days, they would have lots of window clearing to do when it rained or snowed. This bothered Mary. There had to be a better way, and she set about finding it.

After making many preliminary designs, she settled on a manually operated lever installed inside the streetcar, a lever that, when pulled, would swing an arm over the windshield and -- swoosh -- allow the driver to see again! It would benefit not only motormen, but ordinary drivers, too. Navigating through the streets of New York City in rain and snow would be forever changed.

Mary sketched out a final diagram of her new invention, explaining how it worked and how much time it would save drivers. Her windshield wipers had rubber blades attached to a spring-loaded arm. When the lever was pulled, the blades swung neatly across the windshield and returned to their original position.

Of course, the men who had made fun of her invention when she first thought of it stopped laughing when she was granted a patent for her wiper design in 1905. Prior to that, others -- men -- had tried to solve the wiper problem without success. Not only did they think the swooshing back and forth would distract drivers and cause accidents, but they also thought it was a good idea to remove the wipers after the winter season passed. But Mary Anderson showed them. Her windshield wipers didn't have to be removed because they solved visibility problems all year around. They were easy to operate, and drivers no longer had to get out of their vehicles to clean windows.

Over the years, windshield wipers gradually improved. Now computerized, we can adjust them to suit our needs. But Mary Anderson started it all, and we can thank this maverick woman for challenging the men of her time and for making driving safer and more pleasurable for all of us.

Three cheers for Mary Anderson, inventor extraordinaire -- a woman with moxie.

© Theresa H. Morr

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