Weather is the mother of invention

  • Rain will be the main hazard for drivers during the Christmas period this year rather than the snow and ice of 2010. Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Archive/Press Association Images

    A slightly later trolley than the one on which Mary Anderson was travelling, on Rockaway Parkway, Brooklyn, New York. Note the open windscreen that inspired her idea for a windscreen wiper.

    Gladstone Adams, who invented a version of the windscreen wiper in 1908

    A laden 1904 Darracq, with windscreen and tonneau, such as that which Gladstone Adams was driving when he hit upon his idea. Image courtesy of

    The topless and windscreen-less verson of the Darracq from the movie 'Genevieve'

    Adams's prototype wiper being cleaned at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

  • Weather is the mother of invention
    23.12.2011 12:29

    Motoring organisations are predicting that about two million more people will take to the roads over Christmas than they did last year.

    This is no surprise given the vast contrast in weather conditions between last December and this.

    At this time last year there was a blanket of snow and ice across most of the UK with temperatures well below freezing. This year, Christmas Day will be wet and windy in parts of the north and west, dry in much of the south and east, and mild everywhere.

    Temperatures will reach double figures widely, and may exceed 14 deg C locally in east and northeast Scotland. That comes quite close to the highest ever recorded on Christmas Day which was 15.6 deg C, most recently at Killerton, Devon, in 1920. Leith, Edinburgh, had the same maximum temperature on December 25th 1896.

    So as people take to the roads this year, wind and rain will be the only hazards, and not for everybody. The humble but trusty windscreen wiper will have a role to play.

    This is a device with an interesting history. It was invented independently on both sides of the Atlantic a few years apart, both as a result of being caught out by wintry weather.

    In the winter of 1902 an Alabaman real estate developer, rancher and viticulturist called Mary Anderson found herself in a trolley car in New York, USA, on a frigid day, with ice pellets freezing up the windows. This forced the driver to keep the front windscreen open, to the undoubted discomfort of both he and his passengers.

    Intrigued, she devised a manual wiper, consisting of a lever attached to a spring-loaded arm fitted with a rubber strip, for which she was granted a US patent in 1903.

    Unaware of this latent patent, an English sports photographer named Gladstone Adams hit upon a similar solution.

    He was the official photographer for Newcastle United FC, and drove to watch them in the 1908 FA Cup final in April 1908.

    A loss to Wolves was followed by a long, cold return journey to Tyneside, and on his way back a snow storm struck him and his four-year-old Darracq automobile – much the same model, incidentally, that was used in the film ‘Genevieve’.

    Having to stop several times to clear snow from the windscreen, Adams had his own lightbulb moment, and later came up with an apparatus made of wood, string and rubber that would wipe the glass clean.

    His prototype is still on display at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle, and he patented a refined version.

    Gladstone Adams gets inspired to invent his windscreen wiper. Animation copyright and courtesy of Mark Paterson

    Sadly, neither Adams nor Anderson profited from their inventions. Adams’s gizmo was never manufactured, and Mary Anderson’s patent expired in 1920, just before the boom in motoring that saw similar devices become standard attachments.

    They were both ahead of their time in keeping us ahead of the weather.

    By: Stephen Davenport