When you imagine the innovators and inventors who shaped the automotive world, you might think of names like Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, or Karl Benz. What you might not know, however, is that the brilliant minds behind many of the key components of modern vehicles as we know them belonged to women.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re sharing a few of those brilliant women who changed the way we drive today!
1. Mary Anderson & Charlotte Bridgwood – Windshield Wipers
If it weren’t for these two women, it’d be hard to get around while it’s raining. Can you believe that before this invention, people actually stuck their heads out of their car windows to see in bad weather?
Mary Anderson got the idea for her windshield cleaning device – a hand-operated lever inside a vehicle designed to clear snow, rain, or sleet off of a windshield for better visibility – while riding a streetcar in New York City during a sleet storm. She received a patent for the device in 1903, but it didn’t catch on. Unfortunately, the patent expired in 1920 and she never made any money from her invention.
A few years later, Charlotte Bridgwood improved on Mary Anderson’s original manual design and in 1917 patented the first electrically-operated automatic windshield wipers. Named the “Storm Windshield Cleaner,” this device used rollers (not blades) to clear off a windshield. However, the design was not a commercial success and her patent expired several years later. Similar to Anderson’s story, it was only after she lost her product rights that the windshield wiper design was widely adopted and became a standard feature on vehicles.
2. Bertha Benz – Brake Pads
Bertha Benz (yes, that’s Benz as in Mercedes-Benz) set out on the world’s first road trip in 1888 to drum up publicity for the horseless carriage her husband Karl Benz invented. He completed the internal combustion-powered automobile two years earlier, but nobody wanted to buy it.
Without his knowledge, she hit the road with their two teenage sons and covered more than 120 miles of ground – determined to prove that the horseless carriage was suitable for everyday use. The trip was a success for many reasons. Not only did the couple start to receive orders for the vehicle, but Bertha made a few noteworthy discoveries along the way that led to standard features in today’s vehicles.
When the worn-out wooden brakes started to fail, she stopped to have a shoemaker install leather soles, creating the first set of brake pads. The trouble she and her sons had getting the 2.5 horse-powered car up hills – often having to get out and push – sparked the idea for the first gear system. Today, motorists can follow the path of this historic road trip on the 120-mile long Bertha Benz Memorial Route.
3. Florence Lawrence – Turn Signals & Brake Lights
Though she is best known as one of the first motion picture stars, Florence Lawrence was also an inventor – just like her mother Charlotte Bridgwood! In 1914, Lawrence invented the first mechanical car turn signal.
With the press of a button, the system lowered a flag on a car’s rear bumper that signaled to other drivers which way it was going to turn. After that, she designed the first version of a brake signal that worked similarly: when a driver hit the brakes, a “stop” sign flipped up from the back bumper.
Turn signals and brake lights are standard on today’s vehicles, but Lawrence never filed patents for these important inventions and never got a dime for her work!
4. Hedy Lamarr – GPS
Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-American actress who fled pre-war Europe and rose to fame during Hollywood’s Golden Age, but she was so much more than a screen siren. Lamarr was also a primarily self-taught inventor who invented a frequency-hopping technology that is regarded as a precursor to secure GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.
She was inspired to create the technology to help the Allies after German u-boats began attacking civilian ships during World War II. Lamarr learned that radio-controlled torpedoes – an emerging technology in naval warfare – could easily be jammed and set off course by the enemy. Interestingly enough, she already had some knowledge of torpedoes from her first husband, an Austrian arms manufacturer.
Lamarr and friend George Antheil invented a jam-resistant frequency-hopping signal for use in Allied torpedoes to keep enemies from decoding messages. They received a patent for their “Secret Communication System” in 1942, and although the invention wasn’t immediately implemented, it did lay the groundwork for technology used to maintain security for military communications, cell phones, and more.
5. Margaret Wilcox – Car Heater
Next time you start your car on a freezing cold day and crank up the heat, remember to thank Margaret Wilcox. One of the few female mechanical engineers of her time, she devised a way to heat a car without electricity in 1893. The patented design worked by channeling hot air from the car engine into the cabin.
Wilcox’s invention wasn’t a runaway success. In-car heating remained a luxury feature even after fully enclosed bodywork and glass windows became standard on vehicles, and it didn’t catch on until decades later.
From all of us here at Direct Auto, happy Women’s History Month! These inventive women were certainly ahead of their time, and their influence on the auto industry – and the world! – cannot be forgotten. Just imagine what driving would be like today if it weren’t for their important inventions!
Now, imagine what it would be like if you found out you were paying too much for car insurance. Maybe you are! Get a free quote on affordable auto insurance coverage by calling 1-877-GO-DIRECT (1-877-463-4732) or stopping by a Direct location near you.