For well over a century, men have continuously joked that women are the absolute worst drivers. Yet, when Carl Benz invented the first automobile, it was his wife, Bertha, a daring woman with an enterprising spirit who ultimately showed the world how vital the invention was to everyday life.
Legend has it that a young Bertha Ringer came upon an entry in the family bible that her beloved father had written: “Unfortunately a girl again.” The discovery impacted her to the core. From that day forward, she was determined to show the world that the female sex was capable of extraordinary things.
In 1869, the fates aligned on a coach ride when Bertha’s path crossed with a penniless engineer, Carl Benz. The young woman from a wealthy family became mesmerized by the stranger’s explanation of his “horseless carriage” invention. Carl’s enthusiasm not only sparked Bertha’s mind but her heart as well. In defiance of her father, Bertha used part of her dowry to invest in her love’s failing construction company.
Shortly thereafter, Bertha ignored the warnings of her father and married Carl. Without hesitation, she left the comforts of an affluent lifestyle to support her new husband’s endeavors. And being the resourceful entrepreneur she was, Bertha invested the rest of her dowry into Carl’s company, Benz and Cie.
Established in 1883, the company’s mission was to create industrial engines and machines. From this humble beginning came the birth of the automobile…
Carl Benz started the development of his “horseless carriage” in 1885 with Bertha supporting him every step of the way. On January 29, 1886, he applied for a patent for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine”.
The first Benz Patented Motorwagen was a motor engine mounted on a three-wheeled chassis. The four-stroke engine powered the two back wheels, officially making this the world’s first car.
In the two years following the company’s first patent, the Motorwagen received more updates. A Model 2 was invented in 1887 and in 1888 the Motorwagen Model III made its debut. Unlike the first Motorwagen, the Model III featured two gears and had an impressive speed of ten miles per hour!
Unfortunately, the Motorwagen was unable to travel far distances without aid from engineers. Thus, the public saw Carl’s invention as just a novelty. Marketed by Benz & Cie as a wealthy luxury or a sideshow novelty only created greater sales barriers for the vehicle. The birth of the automobile seemed headed towards extinction with non-existent sales.
Carl’s faith in his invention may have taken a nosedive but, Bertha wasn’t agreeable with the public’s conclusion. She foresaw its true potential. Despite her husband’s objections, Bertha was determined to prove to the world how necessary the automobile was for progress. Shehad faith that Carl’s invention could replace the horse and carriage for traveling long distances but, she had to put that theory to the test.
On the morning of August 5, 1888, a determined Bertha and her two teenage sons set forth in the Model III to visit her mother on a 121-mile round trip. She “stole” her husband’s “driver’s license” along with the wagon. To ensure their plan stayed secret, Bertha and the boys pushed the car to the end of the driveway as to not awaken Carl when it started.
The drive was no easy feat. Tarmac surfaces (or tarmacadam roads) did not exist. Therefore, it was an incredibly uncomfortable ride. Plus, without road maps or GPS, Bertha had to navigate using memory, land markers and signs.
Another major hurdle to overcome was the non-existence of gas stations coupled with no fuel tank in the Model III’s design. The Motorwagen only had a four-liter supply for petrol in the carburetor which meant multiple fuel stops were unavoidable. Improvisation was a key requirement to complete the journey.
Bertha knew most pharmacists stocked Ligroin; a petroleum solvent used in many household products as a cleaning agent. Throughout the journey, she would buy out the ligroin or other petroleum-based goods at every pharmacy they came upon. To this day, the old pharmacy building in Wiesloch where her first purchase was made advertises itself as “The World’s First Fuel Station”.
Bertha’s incredible ingenuity went far beyond figuring out the fuel dilemma. With no engineers along for the ride, she had to become her own mechanic and problem-solver. Bertha used the tools she had at her disposal. A hat pin was used to unblock a fuel line and a garter became a make-shift insulator for a short-circuited exposed wire. She has also been credited for creating the first automobile brake pads after asking a cobbler to line the Motorwagen’s failing wooden breaks with strips of leather for greater friction.
To further test her tenacity, Bertha and her boys would stock up on water from town wells or roadside ditches to cool the evaporating cool engine. There were even times when all three of them had to push the Motorwagen up hills due to the two gears not giving the car enough momentum to climb them.
Despite all the impediments endured along the way, Bertha and the boys reached her mother’s house in just twelve hours from when their journey began – an unheard-of accomplishment for anything that wasn’t a horse or a train! Bertha had successfully proven to the world that her husband’s invention was in fact capable of travelling long distances as well as solidifying it as the future of travel.
Just remember, the next time you complain about “women drivers” that if it wasn’t for the first woman who test drove an automobile, you wouldn’t be behind the wheel at all.