Some inventors are before their time.  They have a great idea and there’s a clear need, but for whatever reason, their idea doesn’t take off.

That’s what happened with Mary Anderson, who invented windshield wipers.  We think of windshield wipers today as being for cars, but Mary Anderson invented them for the trolley car.  A trolley car was a type of train that ran on tracks, sometimes in the middle of the road.  You could think of it as sort of like today’s buses: they’re on the same roads as the other vehicles (horse drawn carriages, and then cars), and you can get around town on them.

Mary was from Birmingham, Alabama and was visiting New York City when she rode an electric trolley, or street car.  (The electric ones have those wires above them, you may have seen them in a picture before, the wires that look like regular electric wires are above the tracks and if you look closely, there’s a wire that goes from the trolley up to the wires that are strung from pole to pole.  That’s how the trolley gets its electric power that allows it to move.)

Here’s a picture:

Here’s a picture that shows some trolley cars in and around their storage areas. Note that there are some electric trolleys and a horse-drawn trolley! While the electric one is not hooked up, you can see the sort of stick-like thing that sticking up from the roof, and that’s the part that would connect to the overhead electric wires.

You won’t believe what happened during her ride on the trolley — it started snowing and snow piled up on the windshield of the trolley and the driver of the car leaned out and brushed the snow off with his hands!

Mary thought there had to be a better, and safer way.  She drew up her idea — it looks surprisingly like the windshield wipers of today, but you’ll notice that the wiper is attached at the top of the window instead of the bottom, as they probably are in your parent’s car.

There’s another difference.  The wipers in your parent’s car are powered by the car’s motor, but Mary’s invention, patented in 1903, was operated manually, by a lever inside the trolley car.  The driver could safely drive and operate the lever at the same time! 

Though Anderson was unable to sell her invention, by 1916, windshield wipers were a standard item in cars!

She was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.

Book to recommend:

There aren’t many books that are just about Mary Anderson, though there is one you can find in your library.  It’s for very young children.

Another book you might enjoy that’s about the early days of cars is called Motor Girls, by Sue Macy.  I learned lots of fun things about the early days of driving cars and women who took on daring, cross country driving adventures!  It’s a fun book with lots of great pictures.