Useful Car Tips

History of Rearview Mirrors

November 01, 2018
It only takes a quick glance at the first automobiles to grace the roads of this Earth to realize that safety technology—even the most basic forms of it—have come quite a long way. Side and rearview mirrors became more prevalent as the world acquired more motorized vehicles. Because knowing where you’ve come from is just as important as focusing on where you’re going. Let’s look back at the history of a feature most of us take for granted these days. What with the popularity of back-up cameras and similar safety technology, most of us probably aren’t using our rearview mirrors as much as we should. When was the last time you looked behind you? But it’s the objects you see in that very mirror that you might want to pay attention to. Flashing red and blue lights especially.

A Rearview Mirror in Racing

Many credit Ray Harroun with inventing the first rearview mirror in 1911. Really, he can only take credit for being the first to use it in racing, however. What’s more, his invention didn’t quite work out how he had imagined it either, but it’s his use of the rearview mirror that really got the world thinking. And checking behind them by looking forward instead.

Predecessor of the Radar Detector

You see, Harroun had seen a similar contraption 7 years earlier on a horse-drawn buggy. Struck by the idea, he opted to exchange his on-board mechanic for a mirror mounted just above his steering wheel. That’s obviously not where the rearview mirror would eventually come to rest but the very first patent for a rearview mirror was given to Elmer Berger in 1921. His nickname for it? The COP-SPOTTER. But did you know there’s record of using mirrors to look backwards even before then? It’s true! Back when horsepower actually meant hooves and bits, rearview mirrors were just babies.

Lady Literature and the Rearview Mirror

Though the rearview mirror wouldn’t be standard until 1914, Dorthy Levitt does mention a feminine solution in her book The Woman and the Car. Published in 1906, the book mentions using a handheld mirror to keep abreast of the action rearward of the moving vehicle and advising the driver if anyone should be passing. While we hope most of the women in the early days weren’t too focused on themselves to warn their drivers, this is a rather ingenious solution that we should be thanking our ancestors for. Nowadays, rearview mirrors are often accompanied by back-up cameras and birds-eye-view systems that give drivers an even better picture of what’s going on around them. So, while many commercial vehicles and semitrucks ditch the rearview mirror for more-useful side mirrors, that rectangular piece of glass riding shotgun on your windshield does do a lot to earn its keep.

The Future of Looking Backwards

In terms of what’s coming up for the rearview mirror, it all really depends on where the self-driving car technology brings us. Theoretically, if those self-driving cars live up to their name, every vehicle will be able to talk to the others on the road, so accidents should be minimized to a small percentage. Rearview mirrors will become part of the past they reflect upon.
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