When the precipitation starts to fall, your reaction is almost automatic. The windshield starts to dapple with dots of melting snow or beading rain, and your hand reaches for that little lever next to the steering wheel. Click. Your windshield is clear again.
At this point, you probably notice your windshield wipers as much as you notice how often you blink or how many times your heart beats in a minute. It's become second nature.
But the history of these little lifesavers is fascinating.
Riding in a streetcar on a frigid New York day at the turn of the century, Mary Anderson – who was visiting from Birmingham, Alabama – peered at the city through her trolley window. While taking in the sights, she noticed automobile drivers were forced to pull off the road to clear their windshields from the freezing rain and sleet.
Moreover, as a southerner – unaccustomed to freezing New York winters – she received surprising blasts of cold air every few minutes as the trolley driver reached out of his window to clear the trolley's windshield. With all this sleet and snow, the visibility was awful.
Deterred by the constantly interrupting winter winds, she began to dream of how to fix this unnecessary inconvenience. Where others had tried and failed, Mary Anderson devised a simple mechanism for clearing windshields.
By developing a spring-loaded, lever-operated system, she was able to offer the world's first windshield wiper that the driver could operate from within the vehicle. She filed for a patent in 1903.
It was a giant leap forward in vehicle safety design. Unfortunately, for almost 35 years car companies didn't offer windshield wipers as standard equipment. It wasn't until the 1940s that automotive manufacturers began including wipers on all their products. This was, unfortunately, long after Mary Anderson's patent had expired.
After the wiper was finally implemented onto automobiles in the 1940s and 50s, they still weren't offered with a lot of settings. You could turn them on. You could turn them off. That was just about it.
In 1953, a Detroit-based inventor by the name of Robert Kearns was celebrating his wedding, when an errant champagne cork struck him in his left eye. For years, his vision suffered and he struggled – especially when driving in rain.
As he scientifically examined his predicament, he observed that our eyeballs have wipers of their own – our eyelids. However, we aren't constantly blinking to maintain clear vision, rather we blink every few seconds. Applying this idea to windshield wipers was a no-brainer for Kearns.
In 1962, he applied for his patents. In fact, he mounted his intermittent wiper model on his own Ford Galaxie and drove it to Ford's headquarters. It so impressed the engineers that they had to send him out of the workroom in order to prove he wasn't activating the wipers with a button in his pocket.
As impressed as the Ford scientists were, things did not end well for Robert Kearns. Ford produced its car models in 1969 with the intermittent wiper feature, without the help of Robert Kearns. But it wasn't until 1976 that Kearns disassembled the popular mechanism to discover that his invention had been entirely stolen.
After many long years of fighting Ford, Chrysler, and 25 other car manufacturers, in 1995 Kearns was ultimately only awarded $30 million dollars from Chrysler (knocked down from his initial $325 million lawsuit), because he'd fired his legal advisors and attempted to proceed on his own. With too many cases occurring at once, he was unable to keep his paperwork straight and ultimately lost the claim to his patents.
He passed away February 9th, 2005 at the age of 77. He was never fully recognized as the creator of the intermittent wiper. In 2008, Flash of Genius, a movie starring Greg Kinnear, highlighted the story of this embattled inventor against the Ford Motor Company.
Whether the inspiration was a matter of necessity, convenience, or anything in between, one thing remains clear: Windshield wipers have saved countless lives. Wipers are so ingrained in driving culture that most drivers don't give them a second thought – until they can't see.
So it's important to salute these historical safety figures from time to time. Without their ingenuity and innovation, we'd still be sticking our heads out the windows like Mary Anderson's trolley driver.