Windshield History – How Has Auto Glass Changed?

To think of a vehicle without a windshield would be an interesting thing. The usage of auto glass on our vehicles has become so much of a commonplace, we have lost our entire knowledge (and, albeit, interest) in the longstanding history of the ever-important windshield. Moreso than just a pane of glass, the windshield has a longstanding history that involves both safety and danger.

A tale of mystique, woe, and exhilarating circumstances, the history of your vehicle’s auto glass is certainly one to be told.

We may be exaggerating, but there’s a bit of truth in the matter. We tend to forget just how important those windscreens are. Where would we be without them?

As an auto glass company, we have spent over 20 years dealing with scrapes and cracks on your windshields, but do we know our story? Do we truly know the steps it took to get where we are as a windshield repair company? Let’s see!

Here is a quick overview of the history of auto glass and how it’s changed going into the modern day. Hold on to your hats.

The Before Times

Here’s something to think about: The first gas-powered automobile was invented and patented in 1886. German inventor Carl Benz patented his Benz Patent-Motorwagen, and the rest was history.

The windshield was not officially invented until 1905. Therefore, drivers spent 19 years driving cars without the safety and vision-ability of the windshield. Were their eyes ever dry and filled with flying bugs? Were they often struck by oncoming winds, blowing their hair throughout the entirety of the vehicle?

Because windshields are integral to modern vehicles, you never stop to think about driving without one. Just think of how uncomfortable that would be. They did it for almost 20 years.

In 1904, the first piece of auto glass was created. Constructed out of plate glass, it could fold horizontally and could easily be attached or taken off of the vehicle. It wasn’t until 1915 that the Oldsmobile changed the game, deciding to include a windshield as a standard feature on all of their vehicles. Beforehand, all headlights, odometers, and auto glass were optional.

Oh, thanks!

Luckily, Oldsmobile’s idea caught on. By the end of the 1910s, windshields (along with a majority of the safety features we consider absolute today) became standard on all vehicles.

Integral Integrity

The aforementioned first windshields were made of normal glass, which proved to be both fragile and dangerous in the face of flying obstacles. Lucky for us, in 1903, French chemist Edouard Benedictus found that his glass beaker wouldn’t break if it had a dried collodion film in it. With a bit of genius, Benedictus decided to start putting a layer of cellulose between two pieces of plate glass. With this, he created a glass that was both stronger and shatter-resistant.

Ultimately, this concept isn’t far from what we have in windshields today (but we’ll get to that).

British inventor John C. Wood created a similar type of glass in 1905 and began selling it under the name Triplex. Henry Ford, the genius inventor and American businessman, saw the benefit and worthy cost increase of including the safer glass. The Ford Motor Company began using Triplex on all of its cars in 1927.

To keep a mental image, it’s important to remember that these windshields were still a rectangle of glass with a horizontal foldable section directly across the middle. The first curved windshield comprised of just one piece of glass wasn’t introduced until 1934 by Chrysler.

Progression Stalled

In 1938, American inventor Carleton Ellis created an artificial resin that could be used to keep windshield panes together and reduce the discoloring of glass. This became known as polyvinyl butyral.

The interesting part: this artificial resin is still the most common adhesive used in modern auto glass. Over 85 years, the groundbreaking invention still stands as the best solution.

The process of building modern windshields involves two pieces of annealed glass and a strip of Polyvinyl Butyral in-between.

If that all sounds like Latin to you, we’ll simplify it. Basically, annealed glass is thermally treated and then cooled, allowing for relief of its internal stress. It’s a softer material. This process causes the annealed glass to break into longer pieces instead of shattering.

Polyvinyl Butyral is a type of laminate that holds the two annealed planes together. This laminate creates a sticky resin between the two. Therefore, if the outside of the windshield cracks, the broken pieces will stick to the middle resin and not fly off, avoiding further damage to surrounding objects. Pretty safe stuff.

This laminate also works to help stave off potential thieves. With the pane not shattering through easily, it’s harder to get into a car by smashing a window. All in all, a thief would have to break through two separate planes of glass to get into the car. Also, the planes are more than likely to stick together even after impact. It’s more of an obstacle, causing a longer breaking-and-entering process.

By 1960, the U.S. federal government began to regulate windshield strength through the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They required tempered glass with two annealed planes, helping significantly boost driving safety, especially as cars became faster and more common.

And… That’s It?

Despite over 100 years of history and usage, the major concepts in windshields really end there.

Sure, bulletproof glass became normal for police vehicles, larger panoramic windshields (like we know today) were implemented in all vehicles by the late 1950s, and window tint was invented in 1966. But, the history of the windshield stalls there.

As noted, polyvinyl butyral is still used in windshields today. The tempered glass once seen as a luxury has become expected and legally necessary. Overall, the history of the windshield met its peak, unable to push past the perfect construction of its former heroes.

As of 2023, there are still new windshield techniques and concepts popping up, but they aren’t becoming commonplace. There are a plethora of luxury features like heads-up displays, heated windshields, and infrared auto glass, but none of them have changed the trajectory of history. Furthermore, these advancements often involve electronic pieces attached to the glass, not changes in the glass itself.

The strong methods created in the mid-1900s were pretty much perfect. Glass, as a whole, can’t really get much stronger than it already is. Due to this, windshield history became stagnant.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Unless it’s your auto glass. In that case, fix it ASAP.