Today our rear-view mirror not only serves us with rear-view parking and changing lanes, but it also helps keep you aware of the traffic around you. Even though the rear-view mirror offers a ton of benefits, the original creator had another reason behind its creation - the cops. Originally called, “The Cop-Spotter,” the commercialized rear-view mirror was created by Elmer Berger during the 1920 prohibition era. While Berger is not the first person to design the mirror, his version was the first widely-marketed and sold.
While the rear-view mirror comes standard in all commercial vehicles, in the 1920’s it was merely an optional vehicle accessory—the rear-view mirror functions in keeping us safe in today’s lifetime of transportation. During the prohibition, bootlegging was at an all-time high, and law enforcement attempted to crack down on it. With bootlegging came a time of possible driver hyper-vigilance. Thus, the rear-view mirror served more as a tool to know when to drive safely rather than to drive safely in general. Past drivers saw this new “Cop-Spotter” as a way to speed without getting caught.
Before Elmer Berger created the rear-view mirror, he spent his academic life studying electrical engineering. Berger obtained a degree from The University of Pennsylvania and moved to California, where he established Berger & Company. Berger & Company is where he manufactured the 3x7 strong, plated glass mirror. As word spread about this new accessory, Berger was praised in several publications, including Hardware World: Plumbing & Heat, Volume 15 in 1921. At the time of the article, the retail price for the Cop-Spotter was $3.50.
Depending on the source, whether Berger eventually received the Cop-Spotter patent is up in the air. While Berger is undoubtedly the first to have sold the mirror, the rear-view mirror was first created by Ray Harroun. Ray Harroun was a race car driver who participated in the first Indy 500 race in 1911. Today when there’s a race, vehicles can stop at their respective pit crew for any fixes, refueling, etc. During the car races in earlier times, mechanics rode in the passenger seat with each racer. If there were any mechanical problems, they could hop out and fix the issue on the spot. The second passenger could also be a second pair of eyes for any passing vehicles. However, Harroun had a different idea. Harroun wanted to minimize the weight of his car by removing the additional passenger. If he removed the second passenger, he knew the lighter car could go faster.
Harroun opted in designing a one-seat vehicle and replaced the passenger with a rear-facing mirror. He convinced racing officials that this would be a suitable substitution, mainly because he did not expect his truck to break down. In the end, Harroun won the first Indy 500 staggeringly and went on to make history. Interestingly enough, in later interviews, Harroun says the rear-facing mirror didn’t help win him the race. He said he got the idea from earlier horse-drawn buggies. Years later, when Berger later created and sold the design, Harroun decided to take no credit for it.