While the car has existed in various forms for over a hundred years, one crucial invention helped make it safer, has likely prevented thousands of deaths, and is used every day around the world: the windscreen wiper.
Invented by Mary Anderson, the windshield wiper made the car significantly safer, allowing it to operate under adverse weather conditions and maintain good visibility. Frequently included on lists of the most important inventions ever created, the windshield wiper is a great example of a simple innovation that made a big difference.
Born in Alabama in 1866, Mary Anderson didn’t have a traditional background in engineering, working as a property developer, rancher, and viticulturist. She didn’t even own a car when she began working on what would become the windshield wiper.
In the winter of 1902, Mary Anderson was travelling through New York in a trolley car. It was snowing, and the driver had to keep reaching out of the window to wipe the snow off the windscreen by hand.
She began to think of a way that would allow the driver to stay within the car, while also removing snow from the windshield.
Her initial invention was a manually operated device, which allowed the driver to use a lever to clean the windshield with a rubber blade.
At first, Mary struggled to find interest in her invention, as many people believed it would just distract drivers.
At the start of the 20th century, most cars didn’t go fast enough to warrant windshields, and safety didn’t become a concern until the middle of the century when millions of people began to buy their own cars.
Despite patenting her invention, it was forgotten until the patent lapsed in 1920. In 1922, Cadillac adopted her invention, including it as standard in their car designs. Nowadays it is a legal requirement for all cars to have windshield wipers. They are also used on airplanes, buses, trains, and even some spacecraft.
Mary was posthumously inducted into the National Engineer’s Hall of Fame in 2011 for her invention.
Modern windshield wipers move incredibly fast, powered by an electric motor with a worm gear, which can multiply the torque of the motor by about 50 times. Windscreen wipers are designed to wipe 1.5 million times in their lifetimes.
The future of the technology lies in rain-sensing technology. This would activate wipers as rain starts to fall. The software sets the speed of the wipers based on the amount of water on the windshield, and can adjust in real-time based on the weather.
Windshield wipers are now mass-produced all around the world, as they have become an essential part of any vehicle. The Bosch factory in Belgium alone produces 350,000 blades a day. This vital invention has saved lives whenever anyone has driven in the rain or snow at night, and is certainly one of the most important inventions in automotive history.