The Invention of Windshield Wipers Explained for Students in Automotive Technology Courses

automotive technology program in Toronto

Windshield wipers are now standard on passenger cars, but that wasn’t always the case. The invention credited as the first windshield wiper was patented in 1903 and was called a “window cleaning device”. Its inventor didn’t get as far with it as she might have hoped, and many revisions followed to bring us to the high-tech, season-specific blades of today with varying levels of design and performance.

Like many inventions, this one was born out of a common problem that needed to be fixed. Read on for the story of windshield wipers and how they eventually made their way onto our cars after a lengthy process.

Automotive Technology Program Students Should Hear about Mary Anderson

Mary Anderson was riding a streetcar in New York City when she noticed how inconvenient the current technology was for wiping off windshields. Specifically, drivers used their hands or objects they had with them to manually wipe off glass. In tough cases, they’d stick their heads out open windows to see, taking in frigid, uncomfortable air.

Drivers couldn’t always clear their windshields from the comfort of their seat
Drivers couldn’t always clear their windshields from the comfort of their seat

Anderson returned home to Birmingham and developed a design for a wiper that was operated from inside the vehicle by a handle accessible to the driver. If you’re in an automotive technology course you can compare this simple design to what you see on cars today. She received a patent for the “window cleaning device” in 1903 and proceeded to face rejection after rejection, with companies uninterested in her product. Ten years later, wipers were in use, but since Anderson’s patent had run out she never received compensation for her bright idea.

The Story of Robert Kearns Is a Key Part of Automotive History

The wiper underwent many developments between Anderson and Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. After Anderson’s manual design, Charlotte Bridgwood is credited with inventing the first electric wipers, using rollers. Next, a pair of Cleveland brothers, William and Fred Folberth, invented wipers using blades, powered by redirected exhaust air. As you can probably guess from your automotive technology program, connecting this mechanism to the engine meant it altered in speed, correlated with the speed of the vehicle. A more consistent design came from John Oishei in 1917, using a spring-pressured wiper.

Finally in the 1950s, Robert Kearns was reportedly inspired when a cork hit him in the eye at his wedding and started him on a train of thought about how eyelids worked. He was inspired to create intermittent wipers that operated with intervals rather than consistent wiping. Unfortunately, Kearns showed his technology to Ford without the necessary precautions and his engineering was copied, starting him on a long legal journey.

Updates on Wiper Design for Students in Automotive Technology Courses

Today, developments continue in windshield wiper design to improve streaking and squeaking as well as aerodynamics and appearance. New designs incorporate water repellency, durability and environmental resistance.

Today’s windshield wiper blades have come a long way, but there’s still room for improvement
Today’s windshield wiper blades have come a long way, but there’s still room for improvement

Kimblades are a design that uses rectangular blades instead of the standard inverted triangle shape. This allows the wipers to maintain optimal contact with the glass over time, whereas the standard shape begins to lose more contact with wear and tear. As a product that has been fairly undeveloped over a long period of time, it could be interesting to watch what advancements are made over the course of your auto career.

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