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Friday, 31 January 2014

Women who have helped create the modern car was started to help empower women about driving and using cars. So, in honour of that aim I thought I’d find out more about the women who helped create the modern car – because it wasn’t only made by a bunch of men!

Have you ever been caught in a rainstorm, and had those few seconds of squinting to see anything, before you gave up and put on the windscreen wipers? If so, thank Mary Anderson. Before 1903, drivers would either have carried on driving, despite low visibility, or stopped to manually wipe the windscreen every now and then. But (the story goes), one day Mary Anderson saw a driver with his window wide open, because he needed to see past the snow on his windscreen. She felt there had to be a better way, and so she applied for a patent, and created the first windscreen wiper in 1903. It was operated by a crank from inside the car, but allowed drivers to see out the windscreen, rather than needing to open a window and allow snow or rain inside. Unfortunately, when she tried to sell her idea cars weren’t yet widespread, and the car company didn’t believe it would be a popular option.

Later on, Charlotte Bridgewood improved Mary Anderson’s idea, and created the first automatic windscreen wiper, rather than a hand crank. Unfortunately, neither of these two women got the credit they deserved, especially when you consider how important your vision is to safe driving!

But of course, to drive safely one can’t just look in front. The rear-view mirror is another vital part of the car that helps everyone drives more safely, and it was Dorothy Levitt who can claim credit for its presence in our cars today. She didn’t quite invent the rear view mirror as we know it today, but rather used a standard handbag-sized mirror to do the same job. In 1903, she advised women reading her book should carry a pocket mirror with them, and place it in a convenient location, and then raise it every now and then to check what was behind them. This is the earliest mention of a rear-view mirror – long before manufacturers caught up and introduced a built-in mirror in 1914.

And finally, an invention vitally important to a petrol car, though less visible is the spark plug. This lets of a spark, which causes the explosion which drives all the motion of the car – so quite important! It was invented by Helen Blair Bartlett, who used her knowledge of geology to create an insulator which is essential to the modern spark plug. By 1923, over half of the inventions in the Woman’s Bureau Bulletin under “Transportations” were to do with cars, including a carburettor (which blends air and fuel) and a clutch mechanism.

And as well as that, there are many other women inventors, such as Florence Lawrence, who invented the first left/right indicator for the car or Marion Donovan, who created the ubiquitous cup holder – maybe it doesn’t do as much for car safety as the rear-view mirror or the windscreen wiper but can you imagine your car without at least one?

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