Mary was born in 1866 in Alabama. In addition to being an inventor, she was a real estate developer, a rancher and vineyard operator. While not a lot is known about her personal life, it seems Mary became a savvy businesswoman. She moved to California for a time but returned to Alabama to take care of an ailing aunt. Mary and her family inherited a comfortable sum of money from this aunt by way of hidden gold and jewelry. Some reports say the jewelry was concealed in trunks while others say it was hidden in wooden legs.
Early in the twentieth century, Mary took a trip to New York City where she rode a trolley. She noticed that the driver had to stop the trolley to remove the snow and ice from the window. This was both slow and dangerous. Mary wondered if a window cleaning device could be created that allowed a driver to operate it from inside the car. Right there in that trolley car, Mary because to sketch her idea.
Even though she didn't drive and many thought such a device would be a distraction to drivers, Mary continued to refine her design. After some trial and error, she came up with a basic "window cleaning device," for which she received a patent in November of 1903. Mary attempted to sell her design to a Canadian company who said, "We do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale." Mary was unable to sell the patent or make any money from her invention.
In an interview with NPR, Mary's great-great niece, Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo talked about her great-great aunt's invention and why it wasn't a financial success. Wingo suspects it was because Mary was a woman, saying "She didn't have a father; she didn't have a husband and she didn't have a son, and the world was kind of run by men back then."
After the patent ran out in 1920, the device became widely used. Cadillac was the first automobile company to make it a standard on their vehicles. Mary lived long enough to see her device in use and make roads much safer. Her lack of financial gain from her invention didn't seem to slow her down. She remained a successful businesswoman until her death in 1953.
Mary wasn't recognized for her work during her lifetime, but that has since been corrected. She was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.