We all take it for granted, but there was a day, believe it or not, when there was no windshield wiper. Driving in the rain, sleet, or snow is bad enough with one, but without? I don’t even want to think about it. That is why the next time you are out driving and the drops begin to fall, you should pause for a moment (don’t close your eyes) and give thanks for both the gift and the giver, who happens to be none other than Miss Mary Anderson of Birmingham, Alabama.
Miss Mary was born in 1866, a year after the close of the Civil War, on the old Burton Hill Plantation in Greene County, near Demopolis. Her father died four years later, but Mary, her mother, and her sister, Fannie, were able to live off the estate for the time. When Mary was twenty-three, the resourceful Anderson women picked up and moved to fast-growing Birmingham, built the Fairmont Apartment building at the corner of Twenty-first and Highland, and supported themselves on the income as best they could.
Mary, who never married, saved her pennies and went West—not for the young men going there but to manage a cattle ranch and vineyard in Fresno, California. By the time she reached her mid-thirties, however, she was needed back in Birmingham to help care for her debilitated aunt, who had come to live with Mary’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law (Fannie had married). Somewhat like the Billy Bones of Treasure Island, Mary’s aunt had brought a number of trunks with her, kept under lock and key until her death. Only in these trunks were no maps for buried treasure but the treasure itself: a large collection of gold and jewelry, which enabled the Anderson family to live quite comfortably from that time on.
New York City has long been a favorite place for well-to-do Southerners to visit in their leisure, and so it was in 1903, when Miss Mary Anderson, for whom we are giving thanks, traveled to that great city (not for the first nor for the last time) and, like everyone else, visitor and native, rode the trolley. But unlike everyone else, Mary had her eyes open and her Alabama thinking cap on. When the trolley driver stopped the vehicle and opened the front glass to clear the sleet and snow away, she thought it quite ridiculous. Why on earth did this man need to open the windows in the freezing cold and let the weather in among his passengers? Apartment-building, cattle-ranching, vineyard-growing Mary Anderson decided that if no one else was going to do anything about it, the job devolved to her.
When she returned to Birmingham, she sat down with pen and paper and began roughing out her idea. What was needed was a mechanical something with a rubber blade that would not harm the glass, could be manipulated by the driver from within the car, and that would effectively scoot water, frozen or otherwise, off that area of glass through which drivers need to see. Sounds simple to us because of our 100+ year hindsight. But at the time, the idea was ingenious—so ingenious, in fact, that it was, like just about every other good idea that comes along (entrepreneurs, take heart), laughed at, ridiculed, and otherwise criticized. Mary pressed on nonetheless. She had a prototype manufactured, received a genuine U.S. patent for it, and set about finding a producer to purchase it. On the very threshold of the Age of the Automobile, it would have been a steal. As it turns out, nobody would touch it.
By the time Mary’s seventeen-year patent ran out, however, thousands of automobiles were in circulation, and Mary Anderson’s windshield wiper had become standard equipment on every one of them. Apparently, she never received a penny for it. It is a good thing she still had her aunt’s treasure hoard to live off of! The enterprising Mary Anderson managed Fairmont Apartments in Birmingham until the day of her death in 1953—at which time both the New York Times and Time magazine honored her as the inventor of the mechanical windshield-cleaning device every vehicle operator in the world now takes for granted. Thank you, Mary Anderson, for taking the initiative to solve a problem—there is nothing like being able to see while driving!