This isn’t your typical “behind every great man there is a woman” story where we gush over some famous guy’s wife who did little more than cheer him on. No. Bertha Benz, all on her own, was an amazing individual and without question deserves the title of “Mother of the Automobile”.
When Bertha was 10, she found out her father had wished she was a boy. Carrying that with her, she had little regard for what was expected of her as a woman. Coming from wealth, she was expected to become the prize of a wealthy, white-collar husband. Instead, Bertha had eyes for a young man who liked to get his hands dirty, Karl Benz.
Karl was an engine designer who dreamed of building something called a “horseless carriage”. Held back by an unreliable business partner, Karl had the genius but not the means. He was educated, but he had grown up in poverty. What Karl did have though was a fiancee, and she was not the type to sit down when the world stood in the way of Karl and his dream.
Had Karl Benz invented his motorwagen today, under current German law it would have been Bertha’s name on the patent, because she funded it.
Approaching her father, Bertha managed to acquire her dowry early. She then used that money to buy out Karl’s partner and pay for the development of Karl’s motorwagen. So yes, the invention of the automobile was funded by a woman using her dowry. At the time, other inventors were exploring a similar path. Karl Benz simply got there first. Without Bertha’s help, it’s unlikely that would have happened.
And we haven’t even gotten to the good part yet.
Karl invented his motorwagen, and further developed it. Unfortunately, nobody wanted one. The motorwagen was a curiosity. Gasoline was sold primarily by pharmacies as a cleaning product. Worst of all though, Karl’s invention simply wasn’t seen as a viable method for everyday travel. Local authorities deemed the motorwagen as unsafe for roads. Someone might be crushed beneath its wheels. Karl was falling to despair. His business was failing. He had achieved his dream, but it didn’t matter. Then, on one fateful morning before dawn, Bertha did what was needed. She borrowed her husband’s car.
Without Karl’s knowledge, Bertha gathered up their two oldest children and took off with the car. The motorwagen had been thoroughly tested for driving around town, but that’s not where Bertha was going. She was off to visit her mother… 65 miles away.
The fuel tank only held enough gas for 12 miles. The first pharmacy she stopped at still exists, and to this day is considered the world’s first gas station. Bertha hired a blacksmith at one point to service a chain. She also invented the brake pad when she hired a cobbler to nail leather over the brakes.
Shortly after dusk, Bertha Benz arrived at her mother’s and sent a telegram to her husband. The motorwagen was viable. She had proven it beyond doubt. After all, if a woman with two children could use it, couldn’t everyone? Karl had failed to acknowledge the value of marketing. Fortunately from him, his wife knew better. The next day, Bertha did one more thing to extinguish any lingering doubt, she drove the car home.
As far as I’m personally concerned, Bertha’s drive made her the world’s first test driver. Sure, there had been plenty of short drives within walking distance of the factory, but Bertha Benz was the first person to really put the motorwagen through its paces. (All while the engineer stayed safely inside.) That sounds like a test driver to me. One could also say she was the first PR rep for the automotive industry.
Today, Bertha’s route has been memorialized and hosts a vintage rally. One can only wonder what she would have thought seeing a Mercedes-Benz SLS travelling those roads today. Many credit Karl Benz as the father of the automobile. We mustn’t forget though, that it also had a mother.