Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mary Anderson: the inventor who may not have heard of

March is Women’s History Month and today is International Women’s History Day. It all started with the first International Women’s Day in 1911. In 1978, a Sonoma, California school district participated in Women’s History Week which would led to President Jimmy Carter issuing a presidential proclamation that the week of March 8, 1980 would be National Women’s History. In 1987, National Women’s History Project petitioned March as Women’s History Month and since 1995, March has been set aside for celebrating women’s contribution to history and to our society. I’ve chosen to highlight a woman who has had a great impact on our lives.

Mary Anderson, a woman who many people don’t know her name but we use her invention every time it rains. Mary invented the windshield wipers. Mary was born in Greene County, Alabama at the start of the Reconstruction in 1866. During a visit to New York City in winter 1902, she noticed a man driving a trolley with both panes of the windshield open due to the poor visibility in the snow. When she returned home, she designed a hand operated device to keep the windshield clear. She applied for and received a 17 year patent for the windshield wiper in 1903. The device had a lever inside the vehicle that controlled a rubber blade on the outside of the windshield. When the lever was operated, a spring loaded arm helped move the blade back and forth. A counterweight was used to ensure contact between the wiper and the window. Her device was the first to be effective. Despite this accomplishment, Ms. Anderson was told that her invention would have no commercial value and she let the patent run out. However, by 1922, the windshield wiper would become standard equipment on all cars.

I thought Mrs. Anderson’s story was so great that it needs to be retold and remembered. From an age when women were still fighting for the right to vote, she was able to take an idea and find a way to create a tool that we still use today. I was sad to learn that she was never able to successfully market her invention. One historian theorized it was because her invention predated the Model T and cars were not yet popular. Whatever the reason and even though she wouldn’t get credit for her invention in her lifetime, I hope she realized that she made a great contribution to the lives of future generations. Her story is another example of how a simple idea can change how we live our everyday lives and even the smallest contribution can have the greatest impact.