This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Karl & Bertha


January 29, 1886: Benz Patents Automobile

On this day in 1886, Karl Benz patents the first successful gasoline powered auto. It was the first automobile designed entirely to generate its own power, not simply a motorized stage coach or horse carriage. Featuring wire wheels, a four-stroke engine of his own design, a very advanced ignition coil and evaporative cooling (not a radiator). It was called the Motorwagon designated DRP-37435.


U4884P33DT20120106071102Young Karl initially thought he would be a locksmith and studied towards that end, eventually abandoning that to follow in his father’s footsteps as a locomotive engineer. Remarkably he passed the entrance exam to the University of Karlsruhe at age 15, graduating with a mechanical engineering degree at age 19. During these years while riding his bicycle he envisioned concepts for a horseless carriage. He was a smart kid.


Karl Benz at 25 years old

Karl did not fit in well at any of his early pursuits. A couple years as a draftsman and designer in a scales factory, in 1868 he worked for a bridge building company, in Vienna he worked at an iron construction company.

Bertha Benz

Bertha Benz

In 1871, at age 27, he joined August Ritter in an iron foundry company in Mannheim, Germany. Ritter was unreliable and bad for business. After the tools were impounded Karl’s fiancée Bertha Ringer bought out Ritter’s share in the company using her dowry. What a gal!

Karl and Bertha were married in 1872 and Karl began developing his new engines. After his first patent for a two-stroke engine in December of 1878 he soon patented the speed regulator (throttle), ignition system using spark and battery, spark plugs, a carburetor, a clutch, the gear shift and a radiator.

Bertha’s Trip

An important part of the Benz story is the first long distance trip. Bertha was not only the wife but also business partner of Karl Benz.

Berta Benz

On August 5, 1888, without telling her husband and without permission of the authorities, Bertha drove with her sons Richard and Eugen, thirteen and fifteen years old, in one of the newly constructed Patent Motorwagen automobiles—from Mannheim to Pforzheim—becoming the first person to drive an automobile over a real distance.

Regarding without permission of the authorities consider the cultural climate at the time. Germany’s Kaiser loved horses calling automobiles unpatriotic, and the church called these machines the work of the devil. Police guards were even placed outside the factory to discourage work on the invention. But . . . Bertha was a Daredevil.

Although the alleged purpose of the trip was to visit her mother, Bertha had other motives: to prove that the automobile they both heavily invested in would become a financial success once it was shown to be useful to the general public; and to give her husband the confidence that his creations had a future.

On the way, she solved numerous problems. She had to find ligroin as a fuel; which was only available at pharmacies. She found a blacksmith to help mend a drive chain. The brakes gave way so she invented brake linings by having a shoemaker attach leather to the brake shoes. She had to clear the fuel line using her hatpin.  She insulated a wire that was shorting out with one of her garters.

Replica the Patent Motorwagen Bertha used

Replica the Patent Motorwagen Bertha used

She left Mannheim around dawn and reached Pforzheim somewhat after dusk, notifying her husband of her successful journey by telegram. She drove back to Mannheim the next day. The one way tour had a distance of about 66 miles.

The novel trip received a great deal of publicity as she had hoped. The drive was a key event in the technical development of the automobile. The pioneering couple introduced several improvements after Bertha’s experiences. She reported everything that had happened along the way and made some significant suggestions, such as the introduction of an additional gear for climbing hills and brake linings to improve braking power.

Currently there is an event in Germany every two years to celebrate Bertha’s trip. The Bertha Benz Memorial Route which follows in her tracks from Mannheim to Heidelberg to Pforzheim (Black Forrest) and back to Mannheim.

Bertha Goes the Distance

Motorwagen DRP-37435





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