Mary Anderson -- Not such a trivial pursuit
Birmingham resident Sara-Scott Wingo still has the rejection letter sent to her great-great Aunt in 1905 by patent attorneys Dinning and Eckenstein. In it, Birmingham inventor Mary Anderson learns that her design for the world's first windshield wiper has “no commercial value.”
Wingo's ancestor didn't drive, and couldn't legally vote when in 1903 she won patent on a “window cleaning device” that used a rubber blade on a swinging arm to sweep rain off a vehicle window. Her inspiration came during a winter trip to New York City that year, where she watched a trolley operator repeatedly have to step out of the car to clean sleet off the windshield. She commissioned the mechanical drawings and earned the patent – but never made a penny on the device that's now standard equipment on the world's half-billion automobiles, Wingo said.
“It never went into production. She just let the patent run out,” said Wingo.
Anderson was born in Greene County in 1866 and moved with her mother and sister to Birmingham in 1889. She left for five years in 1893 to manage a vineyard and cattle ranch in Fresno, Ca. When she returned she moved in with her sister, now married, and niece. The women in 1913 built the Fairmont apartments on 21st Street and Highland Avenue, and earned her living managing them.
They spent summers at a house in Monteagle, Tenn., operated the apartments, and briefly owned a “summer home” on Broadway in Homewood, where Wingo's great grandfather died in 1913.
Anderson died in 1953 at the Monteagle house and is buried – along with public memory of her invention -- in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham.
Wingo is Priest-in-Charge at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Birmingham's West End. She said Anderson was a “vivacious, progressive woman,” a developer as well as inventor, who was self-supporting throughout her life and later cared for her niece's children, Armistead Nelson (Wingo's father) and Thornton Nelson, both deceased. Thornton Nelson retired in the early 1980s as a vice president of Alabama Power. Wingo's father was a surgeon in Nashville.
She lived a full life, but never married. “She always appeared in pictures with a wide smile,” Wingo said. “I'm told she had plenty of suitors, but rejected them all.”
Anderson's legacy isn't forgotten at the Wingo house. All three of Wingo's children have produced school reports on their ancestor. Her invention also earned Anderson a place in the history of the 1980's board game craze, Trivial Pursuit. Decades ago, Wingo was playing the game with friends at the family's Monteagle house, when the question came up, Who invented the windshield wiper?
“I was right there in her house,” Wingo said. “I said, 'Oh, I know that one.”