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130 Years Of Automobiles, Thanks To Carl and Bertha Benz

FEATURE
Hans January 29, 2016 10:25

On this day 29th January in 1886, Carl Benz submitted his patent application for his petrol powered automobile that he invented in 1885 – commonly referred to as the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen - to the German Imperial Patent Office in Berlin, thus paying the way to officially recognise the Benz's invention as the first car invented.

After much consideration, the German patent office finally granted Benz his patent on 2 November 1886.

Academically speaking, Benz’s Patent-Motorwagen was not the world’s first car. Hundreds of years earlier, several other inventors have already invented many contraptions that could be loosely described as a car.

Over 400 years earlier, Leonardo Da Vinci had already sketched an idea for a tiny spring powered, self-propelled vehicle – a design which has since been proven by modern day engineers to be perfectly sound.

Prior to the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a French inventor had already built a working steam powered car that was big enough to carry a driver and a passenger, but it was too impractical and was not considered by most historians to be worthy of being recognised the world’s first car.  

Benz’s three-wheeler ran petrol, could be steered with relative safety, had a reasonably long driving range and thus was considered to be a viable alternative to the horse carriage. It is for these reasons that the 1886 Patent-Motorwagen’s ‘registration papers,’ patent number DRP 37435 is regarded as the birth certificate of the automobile. 

The document is now kept at the UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme, and is filed alongside other historically important papers like the Gutenberg Bible, the Magna Carta and Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor.

The Car – A Devil’s Carriage

To fully appreciate the work of Carl Benz and his wife Bertha, who was not until very recently, given due credit for her role in building the first car alongside Carl, one needs to understand the cultural context of 1886 Germany, specifically, Manheim in 1886.

People naturally fear what they don’t understand, and in 1886, the sight and sound of a noisy, smoke belching horseless carriage was quite shocking to the public.

In the deeply religious 19th century Germany, many elders of the Church saw Benz’s work as something that came from the devil. They foolishly believed that man is not meant to travel in anything other than the horse.

For their pioneering thinking, Carl and his wife was rewarded with ridicule. The many years of toiling away quietly in his workshop, ostracised by his community, supported only by his wife made Carl a very reserved man. Though brilliant, he lacked the confidence to develop his invention to the public.

A year earlier, he conducted a public demonstration of his invention, shocking many locals. His early prototype was difficult to handle and the drive ended with Benz colliding against a wall, which attracted even more ridicule from the people around him.

The Woman Whom We All Need To Pay Homage To

Bertha Benz, Carl’s wife, was not a typical 19th century Kaiser-era lady. She was a far more brilliant woman than what many earlier, male-centric historical accounts made her to be – many of which only mentioned her name in passing.

The only reason Bertha Benz’s name wasn’t registered on the patent was because German laws didn’t allowed it.

Carl Benz’s invention was entirely funded by Bertha, who poured her marriage dowry into her husband’s company Benz & Cie. However under German regulations of that time, a spouse cannot be recognised as an investor and thus Bertha had no legal rights over an invention that was realised using her own money.

Bertha also worked alongside Carl in the workshop, and had a good understanding of the vehicle’s mechanics. She would go on to become the first mechanic when she had to conduct the world’s first road side repairs – fixing problems with the engine’s chain drive, ignition, and brakes – when she secretly took the car out for a long distance test drive without her husband’s knowledge.

Although Carl had already been granted the patent, there was still much to be done to make his invention commercially viable. Even though his invention is now in its third iteration already, Patent-Motorwagen Type III, Carl was not convinced that his invention was ready to be marketed, Bertha thought otherwise and the couple argued over the matter.

To prove her point, Bertha, together with her two sons, secretly took the Benz Patent-Motorwagen out to embark on a 106 km journey from Manheim to her mother’s home in Pforzheim. It would be the world’s first long distance drive on a car.

At that time, there were no tarred roads, no road signs, no automobile mechanics or repair shop, and certainly no petrol stations.

They encountered several problems along the way, and Bertha solved each of them by improvising whatever she could find along the way.

When her engine stalled, she identified the cause to be a blocked fuel line, which she cleared using her hairpin. She fixed the ignition by using garters from her stockings. When the car’s primitive wooden block brakes couldn’t survive the journey, she asked a cobbler to nail leather patches on them, thus inventing the world’s first brake pads.

She made notes on which component needed improvements – such as the need to upgrade the car's existing two-speed transmission with one more lower gear for climbing up steep inclines, and tougher wearing brake pads, thus making her the world’s first test driver.

She arrived in Pforzheim late in the evening, and promptly sent a telegram back to her husband telling him that his invention can work.  

In Germany, they even made a movie to commemorate her contribution to the automotive industry – the story of her decision to embark on that fateful Manheim-Pforzheim starts from 1:11:45.

Then And Now – From 0.75 hp to 585 hp

Here’s a look at how far we’ve progressed within the last 130 years.

The oldest surviving Patent-Motorwagen that’s still in its original condition currently belongs to the London’s Science Museum. It was brought from Germany to England via one Emile Rogers. Details were sketchy but Daimler believes that this is very likely to be the same car driven by Bertha Benz.  

About Hans

As someone who appreciates cars not just for their horsepower value but also for their cultural significance, he is interested in the art of manufacturing and selling cars just as much as driving them. Prior to swapping spread sheets for a word processor, he spent his previous life in product planning and market research.

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