Wife takes a Joyride. Popularises the motorcar – Bertha Benz

A reenactment of Bertha's road trip. Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz.
Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz.

Authors note: When the founder of The Mechanists, Hedi Sersoub, tasked me with writing a piece on an influential woman in automotive design and engineering, my mind drew a blank. I had barely heard of such a figure and, yet, it never occurred to me that there might be one. Most, if not all, influential figures that I could think of were men. After a bit of research, I found that there are plenty of women who have had a huge impact on the automotive world without appropriate recognition. If you would like to know more about these unsung female heroes, please be sure to let us know in the comments.

We all know the story of the first automobile: Engineered and patented by Karl Benz. But little do people know of Bertha Benz’s (Karl’s wife) significant involvement.

Bertha Benz was born as Bertha Ringer in 1849. It was a time when scientists proclaimed that women’s brains were incapable of processing much information and that education was detrimental to a woman’s childbearing ability. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Alas, Bertha had a natural curiosity toward natural science which became useful to her later on in life.

Much to her father’s dismay, Bertha married mechanical engineer Karl Benz, who wasn’t as financially secure as her father. This would prove problematic for Karl’s dream of creating the motorcar but Bertha understood his vision and was determined to turn his dream into a reality. She used her inheritance to fund the initial prototypes while being actively involved in the testing and troubleshooting process.

Bertha and Karl Benz. Photo courtesy of Mercedes Benz

Eventually, Karl had a running prototype doing short distance demonstrations. The press and, by extension, the public was (naturally) sceptical of the horseless car. Bertha knew that in order to change the public perception of her husband’s invention, the car would need to prove itself by making a long-distance journey. Unfortunately, being the perfectionist that he was, Karl was reluctant to do that without further refining the car.

So it was without his consent and knowledge that Bertha drove the prototype car on the first joyride in history. (August 5th, 1888). She set out on a 107km (67 mile) journey with her two sons to visit her parents home. Knowing that the car didn’t have the range to achieve that distance she planned her route so that she was always near a pharmacy. The concept of a petrol station had not been invented yet (obviously) so she used pharmacies ligroin (cleaning agent derived from petroleum) stocks to fuel the car.

The town pharmacy in Wiesloch, referred to as the “First filling station in the world”, with a monument dedicated to her historic first car trip. Photo by Rudolph Stricker

Being a prototype, the car was bound to suffer from mechanical issues on its maiden voyage. In one instance, a sparkplug failed to ignite and needed an insulating material to make it work. The electrical tape hadn’t been invented yet so, thinking on her feet, Bertha insulated the spark plug using her garter. She also found that the braking system wasn’t very effective so she commissioned a cobbler to design a leather-based braking system – essentially making the first brake pad. Bertha even used her hat pin to clean the fuel lines when they were clogged. This made her the original roadside car mechanic.

Photo courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Using her ingenuity and resourcefulness, Bertha completed the journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim in 12 hours with the help of her two sons – a journey that takes only an hour today. Did she achieve her goal of convincing the public of the future of the automobile?

The patent for the motorcar by Benz & Co. Photo Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Although members of the public were still sceptical, there was a large enough group who were convinced to test drive the car. This was all that was needed to begin production of the Mercedes-Benz car.

Bertha Benz. Photo Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Even though Bertha Benz was denied the education to become an engineer, she most definitely had the engineer’s spirit. She was scientifically minded, business savvy, resourceful, rebellious and brave – without these qualities, we could be living in a very different world. It makes one wonder where the human race would be now if women throughout history weren’t held back from education.

By Jamil Jafri

Editor at The Mechanists