The Rear View Mirror: How the Obvious Originated on the Indy 500
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a long association with impressive automobile feats and firsts. Even the attendance has set global records, as the Indy 500 has hosted crowds of over 100,000 people.
One interesting first from the Speedway occurred during the inaugural Indy 500 race on Decoration Day 1911 (a predecessor to today’s Memorial Day). Ray Harroun secured victory over his 39 competitors while piloting a Marmon Model 32-based Wasp racer, equipped with what may have been America’s first rear-view mirror. His impressive win was witnessed by 60,000 spectators.
The general claim of “first rear-view mirror” is disputed by some auto historians, who note that there was mention of a potential driving mirror in a 1906 trade magazine. Similar patents were also filed in France around that time. Harroun himself claims to have been influenced by seeing a mirror placed on a horse-drawn carriage.
It is reasonable to assume that there were also basement inventors who may have tricked out their own personal cars with mirrors. Regardless, Harroun was famously the first to use a rear-view mirror in a major auto race.
At the time, race cars typically had two team members on board – the driver and a riding mechanic, who monitored traffic and oil pressure. Harroun’s Indianapolis-built Wasp had only one seat, forcing him to think outside the box and add the mirror. With less weight, Harroun sped to victory at an average speed of 74.59 mph.
This innovative idea, which would later be considered a driving safety essential, was widely considered to be a hazard at the time. Without a mechanic to keep a lookout, it was thought that a driver was inviting death.
Ironically, the only fatality during the event occurred on lap 13, when Arthur Greiner crashed into riding mechanic Sam Dickerson. Dickerson would not have even been in the car had it been equipped with a rear-view mirror.
Following the race, Harmon claimed the bumpy surface of the speedway, colloquially known as “the Brickyard,” caused his mirror to vibrate uncontrollably and rendered his invention useless. Regardless, Harmon laid the groundwork for the widespread use of mirrors in the future.
Even after the 1911 race, it would still be a while before rear-view mirrors went mainstream. California inventor Elmer Berger patented the rear-view mirror in 1921 and began manufacturing them for street automobile use under the name “Cop-Spotter.”