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24 September 2014
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Gladstone Adams

The man who invented windscreen wipers

Windscreen Wipers

A hundred years ago one man set off from the North East on a journey which changed the face of motoring. Cult BBC Radio 2 traffic presenter Sally Boazman has joined Inside Out to rediscover Gladstone Adams, the forgotten motoring pioneer.

Safe driving

A hundred years ago cars weren’t quite as packed with safety features as they are today.

Sally Boazman with vintage car

Sally in period driving gear.

Never mind seat belts, most cars generally only had brakes on the back wheels so you had to drive very carefully, looking a long way ahead and anticipating well in advance if you wanted to use the brakes.

And in bad weather conditions it didn’t take long before you couldn’t see, as cars didn’t have windscreen wipers.

That’s where Gladstone Adams comes in.


He was Newcastle United’s official photographer for many years, and in April 1908 he set off to London in a 1904 Darracq to see the Toon in the FA Cup final.

Sally Boazman with prototype windscreen wiper

Sally demonstrates the original wiper prototype

Sadly, they lost… and to add insult to injury, as Gladstone was driving home, it started to snow.

It was after stopping a number of times that Gladstone had his "eureka" moment and realised what a good idea it would be to have a device which would wipe the windscreen clean as you drove along!

The original prototype looks a little primitive but is still recognisable… with wood, string and a piece of rubber making up the the basics. 

It's still on display at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle.

Windscreen Wiper facts

All UK cars are equipped with windscreen wipers by legal requirement.

Wipers are fitted to buses, trams, trains, aircraft and ships.

American J. H. Apjohn came up with a method of moving two brushes up and down on a vertical plate glass in 1903.

In April 1911, a patent for windscreen wipers was granted to Gladstone Adams of Whitley Bay.

In 1969, the first intermittent wipers were introduced with an adjustable delay between wipes, making it possible to select the degree of wiping action required.

On the earlier Citroen 2CV, a cable connected to the transmission mechanically powered the windscreen wipers.

When the Citroen 2CV was waiting at a crossroad, the wipers were not powered and a handle under the dashboard allowed them to be powered by hand.

Illustrious career

And Gladstone Adams was no one-trick-pony.

During World War I he was an airborne photographer.

He also helped arrange the funeral of the German flying ace the Red Baron.

He was a professional photographer with a studio on Station Road in Whitley Bay and he captured some enduring images of the times including the Mauretania leaving the Tyne in 1907.

Gladstone who?

So why isn’t Gladstone Adams name better known?

There is a plaque dedicated to him tucked away on the former Mission House at City Road at Ouseburn in Newcastle.

But although he patented the idea for the windscreen wiper, his version was never actually manufactured, and in the history books it's an American who's credited with the invention.

Gladstone Adams was a pioneer, adventurer, a man of many passions. It’s a shame his name - unlike his famous invention - isn't better known.

But next time you're out in the car in the snow or the rain spare a thought for the little-known Geordie whose invention is making your journey so much easier and safer.

last updated: 11/04/2008 at 11:32
created: 11/04/2008

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