130 years ago this month a German woman, along with her two teenage sons, set out on a trip to visit her mother. It would be a journey that would prove historic for many reasons. Yet much like Fred Lanchester many people have forgotten, or don’t know, why Bertha Benz’s trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim in southern Germany is one of the key events in the history of motoring.
Ignoring the events of the 1888 trip Bertha Benz would still qualify as a truly remarkable woman. She was born in 1849 to a wealthy family in what was then the Grand Duchy of Baden, south-west Germany. As a girl, and typically of the period, she would be denied the opportunity to access higher education. Scientists at the time claimed women were unable to absorb and process a high degree of information. Despite this, however, Bertha was apparently fascinated by science. Her father was a carpenter who gained considerable wealth and status. Wen he explained to Bertha the workings of the locomotive she would eagerly listen. At school her favourite lesson was ‘natural science’. Legend has it that one day she looked in the family bible and saw her father had written ‘Unfortunately only a girl again’ on the day of her birth. This is said to have spurred her on to prove herself the equal of any man.
As the daughter of a wealthy, middle class family Bertha had many suitors. But on 27th June 1869 during a coach trip with her mother Bertha would meet a penniless, slightly shabby engineer and fall in love with him when he told them about the horseless carriage he was working on. The young engineer was Karl Benz. In 1870 Bertha used her dowry to bail out Karl’s failing iron manufacturing business and two years later she would marry him. She used more of her own money to help her husband set up the company Benz & Cie. Whilst he was a talented engineer historians seem to agree that Karl had little business acumen or marketing flair. It would seem that Bertha had true vision and entrepreneurial skill.
Between 1885 and 1886 Karl Benz began to produce petroleum engines and vehicles. Around the same time another German engineer, named Gottleib Daimler, was also working on building an engine. Whilst both men lived 50 miles apart, netheir ever met the other and it seems that they both worked on petroluem fuelled engines by chance rather than design. Petroleum was a little used fluid, only used for cleaning and available in pharmacists. Previous experiements with ‘horesless carriages’ had mainly focused on using steam to power engines. The earliest example of a ‘horesless carriage’ was in 1769 when a French engineer named Cugnot built a self-propelled vehicle which was so difficult to steer that it crashed.
Daimler visualised using his engine as a general means of powering things like boats, farming equipment and industrial machinery. However Benz conceived the idea of a motor car and ploughed his evergy into designing the famous Benz Patent-Motorwagen, regarded as the first production car. It was patented on 29th January 1886
Initial displays were not successful. An early demonstration of the car ended when is crashed into a wall, causing many spectators to feel sceptical about the pomise of the machine. In 1888 the German Yearbook of Natural Science wrote:
‘Benz also has made a petrol car which cause some stir at the Munich exposition. This employment of the petrol engine will probably be no more promising for the future than the use the steam engine was for road travel.’
Karl Benz returned to the drawing board to work on his invention. At around the same time Gottlieb Daimler and his business partner Wilhelm Maybach were installing their engines in boats and licensing them abroad for locomotives and even balloons. They were also in the process of buying horse-drawn carriages and installing their petrol engines in them. Whilst Karl Benz had built the first motorcar, Daimler claimed the crown for the first four wheeled motor-car whilst adapting the horse drawn carriages with their engines.
It’s possible that this development spurred Bertha Benz on. Her money had kept the family afloat and many historians agree that she thought Karl, and the world, needed to realise how revolutionary his invention could be. Since 1886 he had built two more models and it was the model three Bertha would make famous.
Early in the morning Bertha and her sons Richard, aged 15, and Eugen, aged 13, left their house. Due to the fact that the engine was just a 1.6 litre model capable of producing only 2.5bhp she would need her sons to help push the vehicle uphill. The trio left a note and pushed the Model III away from the house before igniting the invention so that they wouldn’t wake Karl. This was the first of a number of firsts on the journey – Bertha had borrowed her husband’s car without his permission! More shockingly she also had failed to get the required permission from the authorities to drive on the roads. Bertha was the first driver to drive without a licence!
At the time German society was very conservative. Bertha had only been able to invest her dowry because in 1870 because she was unmarried. After the wedding she became subordinate to her husband and would lose the ability to act as an investor. Furthermore Bertha was unable to hold patent rights to her husband’s car despite financing its development. Under modern Patent Law this wouldn’t be the case.
At 5am Bertha and her boys set off on the 56 mile trip. As she did she made history by embarking on the first long-distance trip by car. And embarking on this journey required a degree of ingenuity and self-reliance on Bertha’s part. The car was incredibly primitive posessing no cooling system which meant that the travellers had to stop every 12 miles to refill the water tanks. The engine was cooled simply by pouring water over it and letting it evaporate, taking the engine’s heat away in the process. The travellours scoured streams, lakes and shops for supplies. And the car had no fuel tank. There was only 4.5 litres of fuel in the carburetor – something of a problem when service stations didn’t exist.
After approximately 10 kilometres Bertha stopped at the pharmacy in the town of Wiesloch. She’d run out of fuel and she, along with her sons, pushed the car into the town. At the time pharmacies were the only place where petroleum, found in the substance ligiron, could be purchased so Bertha went in and purchased the shop’s whole supply. The pharmacist, Willi Ockel, assured her that 1 litre would be enough to clean her dusty, soiled dress. But Bertha insisted. And in doing so the pharmacy in Wiesloch became the world’s first filling station. Today the pharmacy still stands and continues to serve as the town’s apotheke with a statue outside commemorating its place in history.
The journey proved fraught and uncomfortable. Country roads were little more than rough pathways with two paralell ruts for coaches. This meant the car’s sole front wheel, positioned in the middle, had to go over rough, rutted soil. Going uphill also proved problematic for the car’s tiny engine, which meant Eugen and Richard had to get out and push. The car’s wooden brakes quickly wore out and Bertha enlisted the help of local showemakers to replace them rudimentary leather pads, creatingt he first ever brake pads. When a fuel line became blocked, Bertha used her hat pin to remedy the situation and used her garter to insulate some worn out wiring.
Word quickly spread about the journey through the local area. Some locals apparently offered prayers, thinking that the sputtering, smoke spewing machine was a monster sent from hell. By the time Bertha reached her mother’s home just under 12 hours later the telegram she sent Karl to let him know she was safe was redundant – the journey was alread the talk of the community.
Bertha and her sons stayed at Pforzheim for several days before completing the return journey. When she got back home she informed Karl about the problems going uphill which spurred him on to install gears into the car and make further improvements. And her journey generated the publicity she wanted and helped Karl Benz believe in his remarkable invention. Very quickly the business which Bertha had bailed out numerous times began to thrive.
Karl never forgot the impact his wife’s unshakeable belief and tenacity had. He wrote in his memoirs:
Only one person remained with me in the small ship of life when it seemed destined to sink. That was my wife. Bravely and resolutely she set the new sails of hope.
Today Bertha Benz and her remarkable journey of firsts is commemorated by the Bertha Benz Memorial Route which traces her journey in southwest Germany. The annual Bertha Benz Challenge is focused on showcasing the viability of ‘future oriented’ cars in a similar spirit to Bertha’s trip 130 years ago.
Bertha’s In 1944 on her 95th birthday Bertha Benz was made an honourary senator at the Technical University of Karlsruhe, her husband’s alma mater. She died two days later at her home. This resourceful, assertive and brilliant woman finally got the academic recognition for her technical skill and scientific mind she was denied as a girl.