In the earliest parts of the 20th Century, an Alabama woman makes a trip to New York City; the cold and stormy weather, and the way it affected her travels, led to the invention of a technology that the vast majority of car owners take for granted today. Without the work of Hall of Fame inventor Mary Anderson, who invented the windshield wiper more than one hundred years ago, driver visibility while it rains or snows would be greatly diminished, leading to great risks in driver and passenger safety.
Every so often, we return to our Evolution of Technology series here at IPWatchdog to chronicle the progression of a technology that truly permeated our daily lives. We all take windshield wipers for granted, even if we may be grateful for them when an intense storm hits suddenly during our commutes. The interesting story of Mary Anderson’s development of the windshield wiper involves an ingenious solution to a common problem and the creation of a technology that was ahead of its time.
Getting a Clear View of the Road Ahead
Mary Anderson, born in 1866 and hailing from Birmingham, AL, who worked as a real estate developer, cattle rancher and winemaker at different points of her life, was riding on a streetcar during a visit to the Big Apple sometime around the turn of the 20th Century. It was a wintry day and the freezing rain that fell made windshield visibility absolutely awful for the streetcar operator.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that a streetcar operator had to contend with poor visibility created by intense weather conditions. However, it was the first time that Anderson experienced a chilly blast of air when the driver moved a window pane to stick his head outside and view the road conditions. This was a pretty common practice during a time when the horse and buggy was a much more popular mode of transportation. It also created a fair amount of discomfort for the passengers sitting close to the front as well as the driver, whose visibility wasn’t much improved when sticking his head outside in stormy weather. On other vehicles, drivers would manually clean their windshield after pulling over the side of the road or even attempt to remove debris from the windshield while driving.
Almost immediately, Anderson began to conceive a design for a windshield wiper which could be operated by a driver from within a vehicle, which improved visibility while eliminating uncomfortable interactions with the wintry environment. Over the course of many months, Anderson settled on a working prototype: a set of wiper arms constructed from wood and rubber which could be operated through the use of a lever installed close to the steering wheel. Pulling on the lever would initiate a spring mechanism that dragged the wiper arm across the windshield, clearing away snow, rain and debris. On November 10, 1903, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued U.S. Patent No. 743,801, entitled Window-Cleaning Device, to Anderson. The windshield wiper protected by this patent was removable so that it wouldn’t obstruct a driver’s vision during fair weather.
Even so, there were many detractors who took issue with Anderson’s innovation, some even arguing that the wiper would prove to be a dangerous distraction to a driver. Interestingly, it’s believed that Anderson never profited from her windshield wiper patent. She was never able to attract any investment in the technology; one of her major rejections came from a Canadian manufacturer who saw no practical value to the invention. Automobile technologies didn’t start experiencing the exponential growth they enjoyed in the earliest parts of the 20th Century until about a decade after Anderson’s patent was issued. Although windshield wipers were standard equipment on most vehicles by 1916, her patent expired before she was able to reap any royalties or licensing fees.
Further Improvements to Windshield Wipers
Obviously, the hand-operated lever system of Anderson’s ‘801 patent is pretty far removed from the variable speed automatic wiper systems installed in most vehicles today. Many of the improvements on Anderson’s idea made by later inventors made windshield wipers much simpler to operate for the growing mass of American automobile drivers.
Another female inventor made an important mark on the early development of windshield wipers. Although we couldn’t find the official patent online through Google Patents, multiple sources, including the USPTO, report that a woman named Charlotte Bridgewood received a patent in 1917 which was titled Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner. The invention is believed to be the first automatic windshield wiper which was electrically powered. Although automating the windshield wiper was an important innovation, Bridgewood’s design incorporated rollers instead of blades and was never commercially successful.
Automatic windshield wipers which use blades were first introduced by a pair of brothers from Cleveland, OH: William M. and Fred Folberth. The brothers’ invention provided driving action for the wipers by directing exhaust air from the engine manifold to an actuator which moved the wiper blade back and forth across the windshield. Much of this technology can be seen in U.S. Patent No. 1,420,538, which is titled Windshield Cleaner, issued to the brothers on June 20, 1922. The blade design was more desirable to consumers than the rollers but the method of using air from the engine manifold would cause the wipers to speed up or slow down with the vehicle. A more consistent wiping speed was desired.
Perhaps history’s most successful windshield wiper company is the Tri-Continental Corporation, also known as Trico, founded in 1917 by John R. Oishei of Buffalo, NY. In 1916, Oishei got into an accident with a bicyclist because of his lack of visibility. Although the bicyclist survived, Oishei was inspired to create an improved wiper mechanism. On December 14, 1920, Oishei was issued U.S. Patent No. 1,362,175, entitled Cleaner for Windshields and the Like. The operating arm is spring-pressured to ensure that the wiper maintains a consistent force against the glass. The growth of companies like Trico and Bosch, which introduced a rear-window wiping system in 1926, showed that the practical nature of windshield wiper systems was becoming much more widely accepted.
The next revolutionary innovation in the field of windshield wipers was the intermittent wiper system that was created by Robert Kearns of Detroit, MI. On Kearns’s wedding night in 1953, a popped champagne cork caught and almost blinded him in his right eye. The freak accident is credited with inspiring him to create his own windshield wiper. The motorized wiper technology developed by Kearns would go on to be installed in millions upon millions of vehicles over the years. Kearns did receive multiple patents in the field of windshield wiper technologies, including U.S. Patent No. 3,351,836, entitled Windshield Wiper System With Intermittent Operation. Kearns showed his technology to the Ford Motor Company but never received compensation and began a series of life-altering nervous breakdowns when he discovered that his technology was being used in most cars being produced during the 1970s. He would eventually file lawsuits seeking licensing fees from several carmakers and received tens of millions in settlements, but after decades of legal battles that severely impacted his mental health and personal life.
Current R&D in Windshield Wiper Technologies
With the conventional windshield wiper technologies which are commonplace in today’s vehicles, it’s pretty simple to keep driver visibility high in poor weather conditions. Everything from replacing a wiper blade to turning it on are among the simplest tasks for a car owner. However, there are still novel technologies being pursued in this field. For example, British carmaker McLaren Automotive is researching the use of ultrasonic force fields to clear debris from windshields, removing the traditional wiper blade from the equation altogether. Legal battles over the alleged patent infringement of windshield wiper technology continues to this day, as a court battle between Trico and auto parts supplier Valeo North America has been brewing over certain patents held by Valeo which protect detachably linked wiper blades.
Although we didn’t note many patents issued recently in the area of windshield wiping or cleaning technologies, there were a couple which made our survey worth the trouble. The Trico Products Corporation is still increasing its holdings in this field, as we saw in U.S. Patent No. 8,819,889, entitled Windshield Wiper Assembly. The assembly protected by this patent achieves a lower cost of manufacture while also addressing undesirable noise and vibration characteristics experienced with wiper use. Screeching noises created when a wiper blade draws against a window are also addressed by the technology disclosed by U.S. Patent No. 8,555,457, entitled Windshield Wiper Assembly That Can Reduce Rubbing Resistance and Eliminate Noise. Assigned to the Faidek Corporation of Changhua Hsien, Taiwan, the patent protects a windshield wiper assembly that achieves the desired vibration reductions through the application of a shock-absorbing function created by elastic members within the assembly. We also found a couple of Bosch patents which were recently issued to protect windshield cleaning technologies, including U.S. Patent No. 8,800,097, which is titled Windshield Wiper Drive. The windshield wiper drive of this invention limits the maximum angular range in which the wiper blade can move to prevent over-pivoting of the blade arm due to external forces, which can pose a safety risk.