By Bob Blake

It is easy to think of the automobile industry as a “male dominated” profession. Names like Henry Ford, David Dunbar Buick, Louis Chevrolet and Ransom Olds (Oldsmobile) only reinforce the idea. But…what about the windshield wiper (Mary Anderson 1903/electric Charlotte Bridgewood 1917 ) , the muffler (Eldorado Jones 1923), the white line dividing our highways (June H. R.McCarroll  1917) and the turn signal.44_florence-lawrence-221x300

The Auto Alliance website (2013) said, “If the first automobile were invented today, a German woman would be the patent holder. Bertha Benz used her dowry to fund the 1886 development of her husband Karl’s Motorwagen. She didn’t stop there – in order to prove her husband’s invention was worthwhile, she took the world’s first road trip – a 66 mile trek to her mother’s house!”

The 1938 Buick had the first flashing electric turn signal as a new safety feature.  They called it the “Flash-Way Directional Signal”.  Two years later, a self-canceling mechanism was perfected.

Credit for this innovation should go to the silent-film star Florence Lawrence with over 250 movies to her credit. Interestingly she was the daughter of Charlotte Bridgewood, who patented the electric windshield wiper. Florence designed both an indicator for direction change as well as the first brake signal.

Ms. Lawrence loved the automobile and, with her movie star salary, she purchased her own car–a rarity in the early 20th century. She had an independent spirit and loved to drive as well as learn the inner workings of a car. In 1914, she developed a mechanical signaling arm that, with the press of a button, raised or lowered a flag on the car’s rear bumper to signal a turn. Next she adapted a flip up “stop” sign to work with the brake pedal. Unfortunately, she did not file a patent and never got the recognition she deserved. Her movie career ended when she was severely burned while rescuing a fellow actor from a flaming movie set. Other health issues followed and she died tragically in 1938.

Refinements to her invention followed. In 1925, Edgar Walz Jr. patented a light with two arrows and a brake light. Joseph Bell followed in the 1930s with the first flashing electrical device. Despite Buick’s innovative addition in 1938, the electrical turn signal didn’t become widespread until the early to mid-1950s.

44_auto hand signalsEvery state now requires electronic signaling mechanisms and the hand out the window signal…well…waved goodbye. I am reminded of the Burma Shave® sign along the roadside that read:

Don’t stick your arm

out the window too far,

It might go home

in another car!