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Who Invented Windshield Wipers? History & Types

car wipers

Windshield wipers are one of those things that any of us driving today are accustomed to. Variable speed, rain-sensing, and automatic—many different types might be installed on a new vehicle.

To get where they are today, windshield wipers went through a sort of evolution. Originally, the invention is attributed to Mary Anderson. However, the idea and patent she developed many years ago is not what we have on vehicles today.

Read on as we start at the beginning and look at some of the major milestones for the windshield wiper along the way.

car and road divider

Where Did the Idea Come From?

In the early 1900s, motorized vehicles were still a relatively new thing. There weren’t a lot of quality-of-life features on them. This was noticed by Mary Anderson on a snowy day in 1902 as she rode a trolley car through New York.

She noticed many of the streetcars had the windows down so that the drivers could stick their heads out to see properly in the weather. The concept she came up with was a rubber wiper with a counterweight holding it to the windshield. This wiper would be activated manually by a lever inside the vehicle.

In 1903 Mary patented her idea, and it became the first windshield clearing mechanism. However, even with its success, she failed to capture any serious interest from investors.

Unfortunately, Mary lived in a time when women did not enjoy the same rights and freedoms as men, and some believe this played a role in her not gaining traction with the invention. Many historians think that Mary didn’t actually benefit from her invention at all.

It wasn’t until years later, after her patent expired, that it was revived and began to evolve into what we have today. However, in 2011 Mary was inducted into the Inventor Hall of Fame to recognize the role she played in the invention of modern windshield wipers with her “Window Cleaning Device.”

man holding windshield wipers
Image Credit: admin_design, Shutterstock

The Automatic Windshield Wiper

There were several major milestones along the way to what we have on vehicles today. Each one improved on the patent before it.

Charlotte Bridgewood

In 1917, not long after Mary was awarded her patent, another lady inventor named Charlotte Bridgewood received the patent for her “Electric Storm Windshield Cleaner.” While this design was a huge step forward as the first automatic system, it wasn’t without its flaws. Instead of a rubber wiper, it utilized rollers. Because of this, it had no commercial success.

William M. and Fred Folberth

Fast forward a few more years to 1922, and we have our first automatic windshield wiper system that uses rubber blades. William and Fred Folbert, two brothers from Ohio, were the brains behind this new system.

Instead of an electric motor, this system used exhaust pressure directed from the engine’s manifold. This pressure activated the motor, which moved the wipers back and forth.

Because they used wipers instead of rollers, many people loved the design. However, because it relied on exhaust pressure, the wipers would speed up or slow down based on what the engine was doing.

red car with a windshield wiper
Image By: max tokarev, Unsplash

John R. Oishei

In 1917 John Oishei founded the company Trico—the same company that’s still going strong today. The company has made several advancements through the years and adopted different technologies.

However, in 1953, John was inspired to create something new. Soon after, he received the patent for his “Windshield Wiper System With Intermittent Operation.” By the 1970s, most cars produced were using this technology.

Unfortunately, it was not with permission, which led to several lawsuits for millions of dollars.

Windshield Wipers Today

Since then, John’s original design has gone through several more evolutions to bring it to today’s state. Each one attempted to improve a bit over the last one, and now we have some incredibly advanced windshield wiper features to keep us safe on the road.

car and road divider Closing Thoughts

Who would have thought that something on almost every vehicle made today would have originated on a snowy day while watching people drive a vehicle with their heads out the window to see? Sometimes it’s fun to think about where some of the everyday things we use come from.

Featured Image Credit: Dibjo, Pixabay


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