Bertha Benz

Bertha Benz

Some of you might have heard of Bertha Benz. The more likely case however, is that many of you are wondering who she is and why she is worth dedicating an article to. Before I address that however, I would like for you to recall to mind the number of times you’ve seen a slow driver or a mini traffic jam and heard someone say, “argh, must be a woman at the wheel!” With that, I will proceed with the story of the pioneering Bertha Benz.

In 1886, the ‘Benz Patent Motorwagen’ was granted and the world’s first ever car came to be. Following developments and modifications, the Benz Patent Motorwagen Model III was introduced in 1888. Despite its impressive speed of 10 miles per hour, the Model III was regarded as a contraption that could only travel short distances, and that too, only with the help of engineers. As such, not a single soul seemed even remotely interested in buying it. With Karl Benz falling into depression over his invention not being recognized by the world. It was time for his wife Bertha Benz to take matters into her own hands. On the morning of August the 5th 1888, she decided to take her two children Eugene and Richard, “borrow” Model III along with Karl’s license to drive it, and embark on a 66 mile (106km) long journey from Manheim to Pforzheim; a journey which took one and a half days by horse drawn carriage.

To say that the trip was daunting would be an understatement. Not only did she have to navigate the journey through Baden countryside entirely by memory, she probably had to endure a rather uncomfortable ride considering that the roads back then had been built for carts and horse-drawn carriages. This was not the worst of her problems however; Model III had no fuel tank and only 4 liters of petrol in its engine. In order to complete her journey, Bertha would’ve had to make several fuel stops, only there was one problem. There were no fuel stations in existence back then. Bertha had to think on her feet; she stocked up on a petroleum solvent substance called ligroin, which was commonly used in households at the time. At every pharmacy she met, she stopped for ligroin and any other petroleum-based products, the first of which happened in a town named Wiesloch in Germany; the old pharmacy continues to advertise itself as ‘the World’s first ever fuel-station’.

Several other issues persisted along the way. When a fuel line got clogged Bertha famously used her hatpin to unclog it; she wrapped her garter around an insulator when an exposed wire short-circuited, when the brakes of the Model III began to give way, she got a cobbler from a town nearby to line them with leather so as to increase friction. Despite all the challenges she faced along the way, Bertha completed her journey of 66 miles (106 km) within 12 hours, and proved the impossible to the world. Bertha’s trip provided an important field test as she was able to communicate all the issues she’d faced to Karl. Most importantly however, she’d proved to her husband and the world that the automobile was the future of travel. Thus, if not for one woman, the world would’ve been a very different place!

Keep in mind, Bertha herself had had a keen interest in technical studies and locomotives since her childhood, but sadly for her she’d been born in an era where scientists considered females as less intellectually capable owing to the lightness of their brains. She’d married Karl Benz, a penniless engineer amidst countless misgivings and invested almost all her dowry in his company. Thus, the Benz Patent Motorwagen is hers, as much as it is his. So next time you hear someone say, ‘ugh, that must be a lady driver’ tell them this story, and how if it were not for one lady driver, they wouldn’t be driving at all!

– Rtr. Tharini Ratwatte

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