History remembers Carl Benz as the inventor of the automobile. However, it’s also important to remember that history is written and interpreted by the prevailing powers of the day. As such, history is often written from the perspective of men.
In truth, Carl Benz’s wife Bertha was the co-inventor of the car. In fact, Bertha was the one who funded Carl’s venture – using her wedding dowry. Contemporaries of Carl recognized that Bertha’s knowledge of engines was nearly as good as Carl’s and the first time Carl’s two-stroke engine successfully fired up on 31-December 1878, it was done with the assistance of Bertha.
Born as Cäcilie Bertha Ringer, she grew up in an era when women were considered incapable of studying engineering and mathematics. She married Carl at age 23 and typical of European tradition, adopted her husband's last name.
Despite having little formal education, Bertha somehow taught herself about engines, often working alongside her husband in their home workshop.
When her husband invented the car - the Benz Patentwagen 1886 - the German patent office listed only Carl Benz as the owner of the patent, leaving Bertha out because German laws at that time didn’t allow a woman to be registered as a patent holder.
But the patent (below) was of little commercial value and the Benz family continued to be poor. In early 19th century Europe, Benz’s noisy and horseless carriage was deemed too controversial for the conservative, religious society of that era. They see Benz’s car as a devil’s carriage and a carriage that could move on its own power had to be against God’s will.
Carl was often ridiculed for his 'horseless carriage' project and as a result of that, he became very reserved and had very low self-esteem. The first time he drove their car on the streets, he found it to be difficult to control and eventually crashed into a wall, drawing more mockery on himself.
Although their invention worked, Carl was too afraid to introduce their car – by then already in its third iteration (Model III, below) - to the public.
With her husband on the verge of giving up, the fed up Bertha decided to simply take the car on a 180 km test drive, without bothering to get her husband’s permission, simply to prove a point.
Remember that this was in 1888. There were no tarred roads, no petrol station, nobody knew how to repair a car, and not even the Benz family knew for sure if the car could survive the journey.
Bertha went ahead anyway, taking her two sons – 15 years old Eugen and 14 years old Richard – with her. They left early in the morning while Carl was still sleeping, leaving a note that simply says she and the sons will be going to her mother’s house in Pforzheim, making no mention of their mode of travel. Carl later realized that the car was missing from the workshop. There was only one other person who knew how to drive the car so it didn't take long for Carl to realize what had happened.
As expected, the car broke down many times along the way, and each time Bertha was somehow able to repair it and continued her journey. She didn’t even have a tool kit! Her ability to improvise and make repairs were proof that she is indeed the co-inventor of the car.
The Patentwagen engine’s primitive cooling system kept overheating and required frequent stopping for water. When the car ran out of fuel in the town of Wiesloch, she bought 10 litres of “Ligroin” from a pharmacy as a substitute for petrol, making the town's pharmacy the world’s first “petrol station.”
The wooden brakes wore out quickly on a downhill stretch and Bertha repaired it by having a cobbler wrapping leather over it, effectively inventing the world’s first brake pad.
At one stage, the engine stalled. Bertha inspected the engine and found the problem to be a clogged fuel line, which she cleared using her hat’s pin. Later in the journey it stalled again, this time due to a worn out ignition wire insulator, which she fixed by removing her garter (a huge taboo for women of that era) and wrapping it over the wire.
Twelve hours after leaving their home in Mannheim and 106 km later, Bertha and her boys arrived in Pforzheim. They then sent a telegram back home announcing their success. A few days later, Bertha and her boys return home but this time they took a shorter 70 km plus route.
Once home, Bertha shared the findings with her husband and among the upgrades incorporated was an additional gear for the 2-speed transmission and better brakes.
Fast forward to today, Mercedes-Benz has been actively honouring the contribution of Bertha Benz, and also that of women in the automotive industry.
For this year’s International Woman Day, Mercedes-Benz released a short video clip honouring Bertha Benz. The video’s timeline has been compressed, but the message remains. The clip ended with Bertha’s actions giving courage to the next generation of women, a girl who had earlier ridiculed Bertha’s believe in progress by calling her a witch.
In 2011, the movie Carl & Bertha was released in Germany, and it had a script that was closer to the actual sequence of events.
Key moments are:
42:00 starting of Benz two-stroke engine
1:00:00 first test drive
1:12:00 Carl wants to give up, Bertha decides to take over herself