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The History of Windshield Wipers

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person touching a windshield wiper

If you find yourself driving in a rainstorm, it is instinctual to turn on your vehicle’s windshield wipers. In modern times, windshield wipers are an expected — and vital — feature on any automobile (except maybe McLarens), but this wasn’t always the case. The history of windshield wipers is a rich one, stretching back to the turn of the 20th Century.

1903: Mary Anderson patents the first windshield wiper

The first ever windshield wiper was patented by Mary Anderson, a real estate developer, cattle rancher, and winemaker, in 1903. While riding a streetcar in New York City in 1902 during a rainstorm, Anderson noticed that the streetcar operator was struggling with extremely poor visibility, causing him to open his window and stick his head out. Upon seeing this, Anderson automatically began drawing up the design for a windshield wiper operated by the driver to help improve visibility.

This manual mechanism operated a set of wood and rubber arms with a lever, helping clear away snow, rain, and debris. Anderson’s invention never took off, though, and she never truly benefited financially from the invention. Maybe it was the name: “window cleaning device for electric cars and other vehicles to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window.” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “windshield wiper” does!

1919: The automatic windshield wiper is introduced

It wasn’t until 1916 that windshield wipers were standard equipment on most vehicles, allowing for further advancements in the technology.

William M. Folberth, an inventor, patented the first automatic, non-hand-driven windshield wipers in 1919. These automatic windshield wipers used a vacuum-powered system to clear the windshield, which became standard equipment on automobiles. This vacuum-powered system was widely used until 1960s, when the use of intermittent wipers became more common.

1969: Robert Kearns introduces the intermittent windshield wiper

Over the course of many decades, different inventors patented the idea of intermittent wipers, but the idea truly took hold thanks to Robert Kearns, an engineering professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Kearns’ invention was brought to the attention of the Ford Motor Company when he proposed manufacturing the design. While this proposal led to a patent dispute between the American carmaker and Kearns, the invention also led us to the windshield wipers we have today.

Today: Windshield wipers everywhere!

Now, windshield wipers are commonplace on vehicles and a variety of options are available. The automotive industry has even introduced rain-sensing wipers that start themselves. With this technology, the view of the road is sure to stay clear.