The development of the automotive industry has always been a male dominated environment. From the first self propelled road vehicle developed by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769, to the first true automobile developed by Karl Benz in 1885, through to the first successful 2 stroke gasoline powered car by Charles Duryea in 1893. Even today the automotive industry is still male dominated, with less than 25% of the American automotive industry staffed by females and this figure includes engineering, design and sales. The story of the car can’t possibly have this little female involvement, so I thought I would do some digging and discovered these amazing contributions by women throughout the development of the automobile.
1903 – The windscreen wiper
Born in 1866 almost 50 years prior, Mary Anderson could even be called the original Hedy engineeress. Wikipedia describes her as an American real estate developer, rancher, viticulturist and inventor. Importantly for us, and for the automotive industry, she was granted her first patent in 1903 for an automatic car window cleaning device controlled inside the car, called a windshield wiper.
During a winter trip to the Big Apple in 1902 Mary observed that the motorman drove with both panes of the double front window open so the windshield stayed clear of falling sleet. On her return home she designed a hand-operated device to keep a windshield clear that consisted of a lever inside the vehicle that controlled the external rubber blade. This device was similar to others made earlier however hers was the first to be effective.
Attempting to sell her invention she was told by one company “we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale”. Mary’s patent expired before the wiper became widely adopted, and by 1922 Cadillac became the first major car manufacturer to adopt Mary’s device as standard equipment.
So though unfortunately Mary didn’t see any financial recognition for her contribution to safety and the automotive industry, you can find her work in every modern car and references to her in The Simpsons and QI!
1906 – Rear vision mirror
The first recorded mention of a mirror to look behind you whilst driving was by Dorothy Levitt in her book The Woman and the Car. She noted that women should “carry a little hand-mirror in a convenient place when driving” so they may “hold the mirror aloft from time to time in order to see behind while driving in traffic”, thereby inventing the rear view mirror before it was introduced by manufacturers in 1914 by Elmer Berger, the man usually credited with its invention.
Levitt was the first british female racing driver, womens world land speed record and the author of The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for all Women Who Motor or Who Want to Motor. This carry guide covers the mirror, starting the car, changing speed, motor manners and importantly what to wear. I can only imagine it would have been quite the page turner!
1914 – Indicator and Brake Signals
Next we take a look at Florence Lawrence, a Canadian-American stage performer and film actress. Often referred to as ‘The First Movie Star’ she is well known for her appearances in more than 250 films throughout her career. What isn’t well known is that Florence designed the first “auto signalling arm”, or a mechanical turn signal along with the first mechanical brake light. Unfortunately, however she did not patent these inventions and received no credit or profit for either invention.
As a very successful actress Florence was able to buy her own car, adoring driving and learning how automobiles worked. She was once known to say “A car to me is something that is almost human, something that responds to kindness and understanding and care, just as people do.”
The mechanical signalling arm she invented in 1914 raised or lowered a flag on the cars rear bumper that told other drivers which way the car was turning simply with the press of a button. The brake signal worked in a similar fashion, when a driver pressed the brake pedal a ‘STOP’ sign flipped up from the back bumper.
Later in the week we look at three more female contributions to the automotive industry from 1921 onward.