Memorabilia: Wiper Blades

This month, FMM Assistant Curator Cheslynne Ruiters sweeps across to the history of wiper blades…

One of the numerous features of the motor car that is generally taken for granted – many of which are safety related! – is the windscreen wiper, but whose brilliant idea was this? On 9 October 1903, Irish born inventor James Henry Apjohn (1845-1914) patented an “Apparatus for Cleaning Carriage, Motor Car and other Windows” which outlined the use of brushes for wipers that could be either motor- or hand-driven. These wipers were intended to clean either both up and down or in just one direction on a vertical window.

But the person who was actually credited with the first patent of the windscreen wiper was American ‘visionary’ Mary Anderson (1866-1953), who worked as a real estate developer, cattle rancher and wine maker at different points in her life. While on a trip to New York in the winter of 1903, Anderson observed drivers having to clean the windscreen to see where they were driving. Following the trip, Anderson designed a windshield rubber blade that would connect itself to the interior of the car, allowing the driver to operate the windshield wiper from inside the vehicle. She filed an application for a patent on 18 June 1903. Anderson’s “Window Cleaning device” was fixed on many of the early cars and she was issued an official licence for her invention in November 1903. She tried to sell her product to many car companies and manufacturers, but her invention was not taken seriously. However, after the patent expired in 1920, the basic design was widely accepted by the industry and in 1922 Cadillac was the first manufacturer to make wipers standard equipment. Many improvements on Anderson’s idea were made by later inventors that made them simpler to operate.

In 1917, Hawaiian dentist Dr Ormand Wall invented the automatic wiper by placing an electric motor in the top centre of the windshield so the wiper arced down over the hood of the car in a semi-circular or rainbow shape. In 1919, two brothers from Ohio, William and Fred Folberth, developed a mechanism that used air from the engine manifold to operate the wipers, the speed and efficiency of which was dictated by the speed of the vehicle.

These days, more demands are made on windscreen wiper systems as vehicle aerodynamics dictate larger and more sloping windscreens – wipers can be as much as 76 cm long, which creates a lot of friction as they clean the windscreen. Motor systems are being increased in voltage to power these longer blades. Blades are being improved with increasingly flexible rubber and non-stick coatings.

Windshield wipers contribute greatly to vehicle safety, and their care and regular replacement should not be overlooked. For those who considered that Mary Anderson’s invention to “not be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale”, we can only be thankful that their (excuse the pun) lack of vision was wiped clean…