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The Woman Who Invented Windshield Wipers

Like most women of her generation who visited New York in 1902, thirty-six-year-old Mary Anderson got to where she was going in a streetcar. On one particular wintery day, she couldn't help but notice how all hell broke loose on the city roads as soon as the weather turned nasty. When it began to rain or snow, every driver was in a mad panic to clear his window in order to see where he was going.

Today we take windscreen wipers for granted, and perhaps you imagined that they were invented along with the car. Not so. When bad weather struck, the driver had to roll down the window and stick his head out the side of the car in an attempt to see the road and oncoming traffic. He sometimes used his hand to clear the windscreen, but that wasn't very effective. The lucky ones might have had a split windshield, half of which could be opened to let the driver see out, but that wasn't very useful or practical and it didn't improve visibility and safety all that much. This situation inspired Mary to think about creating a solution to the problem, which would only get worse as more cars came on the roads. When she returned home to Alabama, Mary worked with a designer to create the first manually operated windscreen wiper, which she obtained the patent for in 1903 (it expired in 1920). It would take almost two more decades for wipers to become standard on new automobiles.

What Mary hit on a century ago was the solution to what Tony Fadell—the creator of the iPod—calls an 'invisible problem'. That's a problem that we don't think of as being a problem because we're so used to it, we just don't see it anymore and don't think about ways that things could be different or better.

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