Mary Anderson's story always starts on the cold, rainy, turn-of-the-20th-century day that changed her life.
She’d spent her whole life trying new things, so, on her first visit to New York City, she wasn’t about to shy away from a ride on one of its famed streetcars. On board, she found city slickers soaked and frozen from the weather — and she ended up developing the crucial invention we today associate more with safety than with comfort: the windshield-wiper blade.
Anderson grew up on a 3,000-acre plantation in Reconstruction-era Alabama. She marched to the beat of a different drummer — "impractical" was the word she was called by childhood teases — but she was determined to show others that their lives could be different too.
She took a winding path to becoming an inventor. In 1890 at the age of 24, she moved to Birmingham, Alabama, built the Fairmont Apartments there, and managed them. At 27, she moved to Fresno, in California, to become a cattle rancher and then try running a vineyard. At 32, she returned to Birmingham to nurse to a sick aunt. And when the aunt died, revealing a secret stash of gold and jewels, Anderson headed with friends to New York City, where the Statue of Liberty still gleamed shiny copper, the Flatiron Building dared to scrape 20 stories of sky, and newly invented automobiles were free to zoom the streets at a brisk 8 miles per hour.
There she was, in the winter of 1902, riding a streetcar through a miserable, frosty, slushy, sleeting day. The conductor couldn't see through the slush-slicked two-paned windshield, so he had opened them both to peer through the gap in the middle. This was a common practice; other drivers steered with their heads out of the windows, like dogs, to see through the rain. The most common fix was to rub the windshield with a plug of tobacco, a half-onion, or a carrot, and then hope the oils kept the water gliding off — that, or remove the windshield entirely.
In the streetcar, Anderson saw the elements whip the conductor's face and spill into the cabin.
In the streetcar, Anderson saw the elements whip the conductor's face and spill into the cabin. She watched him stop every few minutes to get out and clear the window by hand.
She was old for 1902 — 36 at a time when life expectancy for women was 53. But, in a seen-but-not-heard time for such unmarried women, she spoke up forcefully: "Why doesn't someone make a device to clear the glass, without the motorman having to leave the car?"
"It's been tried, lady, time and again," the conductor told her. "Can't be done."
"Are you sure?" Anderson asked.
"Yep. Don't bother your pretty head about it."
That bothered her pretty head even more. Right there on the streetcar, she took out her notebook and began sketching solutions. She was the kind of woman who kept a notebook on hand for jotting down moments of inspiration.
It took a year of trying — indeed, others had thought of it but couldn't develop working models — until she received a patent in November 1903 for a "window-cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove to remove snow, ice, or slept from the window." It was a rubber blade on a spring-loaded wooden arm that would swipe across a window and back if the driver pulled a lever inside the car, a kind of snow plow for your eyes.
Unable to find a buyer for her invention, Anderson allowed her patent expire in 1920. Around the same time, mass production of automobiles picked up, and windshield wipers soon became standard equipment in vehicles.
The girl who had lived impractically had grown up into the woman who could make the impossible happen.