It’s a well-known fact that Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were the founders of Mercedes-Benz. Benz’s three-wheeled vehicle was the first to combine an internal combustion engine with an integrated chassis. What many don’t know is that if it weren’t for one plucky woman, the development of the automobile might never have unfolded the way it did.
Two years before her marriage to Benz, Bertha Ringer used a portion of her substantial dowry to invest in a cause she believed in: her future husband’s failing iron construction company. Had she been married, German law would have prohibited her from doing so. The couple married in 1872, and Carl – continuing to use Bertha’s dowry as financial support – moved on to a new manufacturing venture and began work on the first horseless carriage, which was completed in 1885. Although it was her money that bankrolled the venture, by law Bertha was not allowed to hold the patent.
Nevertheless, Bertha made her mark in history. Carl, apparently lacking in self-confidence, didn’t consider marketing his new invention. One morning at dawn in August 1988 – without telling her husband and without permission from the authorities – she and her two teenage sons climbed into the newly constructed “Patent Motorwagen” automobile and began a 66-mile trip, ostensibly to visit her mother. What she really wanted to do was give her husband the confidence that his invention had a purpose, and prove the automobile’s use to the general public.
With a speed ranging between 9 and 11 mph, the journey took the entire day, and wasn’t without its challenges. With no fuel tank and only a 4.5-litre supply of petrol in the carburetor, Bertha had to find the petroleum solvent needed for the car to run, which was only available at apothecary shops, so she stopped at a pharmacy to purchase the fuel. She cleaned a blocked fuel line with her hat pin and used her garter as isolation material.
A blacksmith had to help mend a chain at one point. When the wooden brakes began to fail, she visited a cobbler to install leather, making the world’s first pair of brake pads. The thermosiphon system was employed to cool the engine, making water supply a big worry along the trip, so the trio had to add water to their supply every time they stopped. The car’s two gears were not enough to tackle the uphill inclines in the foothills of the Black Forest, and the Benz’ sons Eugen and Richard often had to push the vehicle. Bertha and her son’s reached their destination somewhat after dusk, and she notified her husband of the successful journey by telegram. She drove back to Mannheim several days later.
The drive was significant in more ways than one. Bertha became the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance (motorized drives before this historic trip were merely very short trial drives, returning to the point of origin, made with mechanical assistants). It was also a key event in the technical development of the automobile, as Bertha reported everything that had happened along the way to Carl, making important suggestions like the introduction of an additional gear for climbing hills and brake linings to improve brake power.
Bertha’s pioneering “publicity trip” and unwavering confidence in her husband’s invention was a turning point in the history of the automobile. As Carl Benz 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.”