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Women and Cars - Innovators in Automotive History

In honor of women's history month we thought we'd explore the history of women and cars. While men were clamoring to lay claim to being the first inventor of the American automobile or receive recognition for driving records, women rarely gave much thought, much less got attention, for their transformative roles in automotive history. According to the US Department of Transportation, by 1923 more than 175 patents were granted to women for the inventions related to automobiles. The women below have helped shape and influence our automotive history since the dawn of the automobile. Many of these accomplishments are little known and we are proud to help honor and celebrate these women by sharing some of their achievements with you.

 In 1903 Mary Anderson patented a "window cleaning device" to remove snow, ice or sleet from the window of electric cars and other vehicles. Her idea came to her as she was riding a street car and noticed that the driver had to open the front windows to remove rain and snow to improve his visibility. Not only was he exposed to the cold, wet weather but so were the passengers. Mary ended up developing the first windshield wiper complete with a rubber blade that was operated manually by a crank from inside the vehicle. Upon receiving the patent for her invention, Mary tried to sell it to a Canadian manufacturing company but they refused, feeling that her wipers had no practical value. People scoffed at Anderson’s invention, saying that the wipers’ movement would distract  drivers and cause accidents. Unfortunately Mary's patent expired by the time wiper blades became standard and she never profited from her invention.

 Florence Lawrence devised a mechanism in 1914 that worked as a signal arm to inform other drivers which way a car was going to turn. Her invention was devised of a flag that raised and lowered at the rear of the bumper and was operated by an electrical push button. She also developed a brake signal to advise other drivers when the car was coming to a stop. A sign reading "stop" popped up at the rear of the car upon pressing the foot brake. Sadly Florence did not file a patent for either one of her inventions. Although she was best known as America's first movie star for her role in over 250 silent films, she was also an avid motorist and learned as much as she could about cars. Her love for the automobile ultimately led to her inventions which were extremely important in paving the way for improved safety on the road. It wasn't until 1925 that anything resembling her early inventions would be patented by a large automotive manufacturer. Buick made turn signals standard in 1939 but they didn't become widespread until the mid 1950's.

 (Florence in one of her beloved cars)

Center lanes were conceived of on a fateful day in California in 1917 as Dr. June McCarroll was on her way home after making a house call to a patient. As McCarroll herself recalled," My Model T Ford and I found ourselves face to face with a truck on the paved highway. It did not take me long to choose between a sandy berth to the right and a ten-ton truck to the left! Then I had my idea of a white line painted down the center of the highways of the country as a safety measure." She took her idea to have a center line painted down the middle of the road to the Chamber of Commerce and the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, but they only listened politely and didn't take her seriously. Thinking that an example might illustrate the safety benefits of her idea June decided to paint a 2 mile long, 4 inch wide stripe down the center of the road that passed in front of her house. Even then it still took her 7 years of persistent letter writing and petitioning for the county and the state to adopt her idea and paint center lanes in the state of California in 1924. “When I gave this idea to an accident-ridden world,” McCarroll said years later, “it was with no thought of honors -- only safety for drivers of automobiles.”

Hedy Lamarr was another actress more know for her beauty and starring roles in films during the 1930's than she was for her inventive genius. Although she made her fame and fortune in Hollywood her inventions played a major role in automotive history and beyond. Hedy drew up designs for an improved stoplight, created a tablet that dissolved in water that made a soda similar to Coca Cola, and helped Howard Hughes improve the design of his airplanes. Her most important invention however was created during WWII. Hedy helped to create a communication system that used wireless transmission technology, or frequency hopping signals, that helped to guide torpedoes to their targets. She filed for a patent in 1942 and tried to get the Navy onboard but they did not implement frequency hoping signals until 1962. The patent expired before Hedy could make any money from her greatest invention. Her advances in the field of wireless technology ultimately laid the foundation for the creation of today's Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS.

 (Hedy Lamarr and her Secret Communication System)

 It's hard to imagine a time without all these convenient features and safety measures that improve our lives, both in and out of the car. Thank you to all the bold, innovative women who have led the way and been visionaries in many aspects of automotive history for well over 100 years.

This is just a small handful of women we have featured here who have made important contributions in American history. If you'd like to delve deeper into this area of women's history, take a look at the Timeline of Women in Transportation History.

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