Women's Innovation Center

No One Bought Mary Anderson’s Windshield Wiper Concept. “No Commercial Value,” They Said.

Today, CWI is giving her the recognition she deserves.

Mary Anderson (Photos: NCWI)

By Jane Plitt, Founder and Board Chair, National Center of Women’s Innovations

Alexandria, VA – Imagine rejecting the opportunity to install windshield wipers into automobiles. That is exactly what happened when creative thinking Mary Anderson tried to sell her patented “Window Cleaning Device” in 1903. No one would buy her windshield wiper concept. Worse, she was told it had no commercial value and might increase drivers’ risks by distracting them when they “had to” operate their wipers.

For 17 years, Mary tried to sell her patent, but there were no takers. Then, after her patent expired in 1920, Cadillac began installing windshield wipers as part of their standard equipment in 1922. The rest of the industry followed.

It is another sad example of how women’s innovations have been buried by history, ignored, even denigrated, and then identified with men.

Digging into Mary’s life provides a fascinating glimpse into her bold personality to think outside the box and play in men’s sandboxes. An Alabamian by birth, Mary moved to Birmingham in 1889, where she entered the male world of real estate development, constructing the Fairmont Apartments. In 1893, she left the building’s management to her family and moved to Fresno, California, to operate a cattle ranch and vineyard, another male bastion.

While in New York City in 1902, she rode a trolley during a sleet storm. She observed how the streetcar conductor had to lean outside the trolley or get off the vehicle to clear the windshield. For Mary, this was a problem needing a solution, which she promptly solved by sketching out the solution. Her design for a “window cleaning device” was awarded U.S. Patent number 743,801 on November 10, 1893.

Sketch of Mary Anderson’s Window Cleaning Device

What Mary could not solve was the automobile industry’s total rejection of her visionary solution that we all depend on today in rain, sleet, or snowstorms. Notably, Mary Anderson was not inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame until 2011, 108 years after she had patented the windshield wiper.

Mary Anderson is not known for her windshield wiper concept. Fortunately, the National Center of Women’s Innovations has dedicated volunteers compiling and sharing such discoveries in this column, our website, and our educational programs. They deserve to be commonly known. The challenge is it won’t happen without support. That is why we would like you to meet some dedicated folks who are bringing Mary’s story and others alive.

Helena Bailey became involved with NCWI after attending a volunteer Senior Services fair in March 2023, where she met me, Jane Plitt, and Charleen Smith-Riedel, who heads our research effort. To date, Helena has completed 458 searches for these forgotten women innovators. With two granddaughters, she is motivated to pursue this research.

Helena Bailey

“I want to motivate them to be whatever they want to be,” she says. “I hope my research inspires girls everywhere, making them aware they have limitless options for their future. I am learning a great deal about women I had never heard of and like passing this information on to others.”

Perhaps Helena’s work as an investigator and service in Tucson’s probation and drug court offices gave her the tools to dig for the truth. She retired in 2013 from public service work. After being widowed in 2020, she moved to Alexandria to be closer to her family.

In addition to researching women innovators, Helena graciously crochets for charities. She has made shawls for shut-ins, hats for premature babies at a Richmond Hospital, a red, white, and blue project for Ft. Belvoir, hats and scarves for various homeless charities, and baby blankets for whoever needs one. Helena is also a Friendly Visitor for Alexandria Senior Services. As a devoted grandmother, she enjoys attending sporting events for her granddaughters’ teams and participating in their activities.

We are mighty grateful to have Helena on our team. Consider joining us to help with our research, social media, publicity, fundraising, and informational technology efforts. Email me at [email protected] or call (757) 656-9870. Learn more about NCWI, and please consider supporting us with year-end donations at womensinnovations.org.

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