An Unrelated Invention

April 11, 2015

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By Matt Wolfe

Windshield wipers are an innovation that hardly anyone gives a second thought today. They have been standard on nearly every vehicle since the early 20th century, and over that time the basic design has barely evolved. Its invention and commercial success came thanks in large part to a pair of innovative individuals who, despite sharing a name, were completely unrelated and never actually met.

One winter day in 1902, a young woman was riding in a streetcar in New York City. The sky was raining sleet, and the woman observed that the driver of the trolley could hardly see through the icy windshield. He was forced to drive with the front window open, exposing himself and his passengers to the foul weather. Thinking there had to be a way to allow the driver to see without exposing himself and his passengers to the elements, the young woman immediately began to sketch some ideas. Upon returning home to Alabama, she hired a company produce a prototype. What she devised was a set of wiper arms attached to a blade made of wood and rubber connected to a lever near the steering wheel. In 1903, Mary Anderson (pictured right) was granted, a 17-year patent for the first windshield wiper.

Though her device was effective, it was not economically successful. Many argued that the movement of the wipers would distract drivers and cause accidents. Anderson tried to sell her patent to a Canadian firm, but the company refused saying “we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.” Though mechanical windshield wipers eventually became standard equipment on cars, Mary Anderson never profited from her invention. It take over two decades before another Anderson would come up with an idea of his own to make wiper blades a profitable product.

Anderson Co. was instrumental in advancing wiper blade technology, as demonstrated in this picture from a 1954 Anderson press release on the ANCO COBRA wrap-around wiper.

On a stormy night in 1925, John Anderson (pictured right) was driving through the rural Midwest. His car’s wiper blades were worn to the point of being useless and Anderson couldn’t see where he was going. He tried to locate some replacement blades, but could not find a set anywhere he stopped. Realizing an opportunity to expand his automotive parts business, Anderson stormed up an idea to offer replacement wiper blade kits at every auto parts store and service station across the country. It was that very night that the ANCO wiper blade was born. ANCO’s replacement wiper blade kits quickly became the most popular brand of replacement blade thanks to clever marketing techniques and widespread distribution. ANCO wiper blades even became standard equipment on numerous military vehicles, planes, and boats during WWII.

Though they were both instrumental in providing drivers with a clear view of the road, there is no evidence to show that the Andersons were related in any way or that they ever had contact with one another. However, it would not be hard to imagine that Mary Anderson laid eyes on a box of ANCO wiper blades at some point in her life.

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