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Bertha Benz: The First Long-Distance Driver

Bertha Benz was the wife and business partner of automobile innovator Karl Benz. In August of 1888, she was the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance when she field-tested the Patent-Motorwagen by driving it 65 miles and attracting local and press interest along the way. During the trip, she had to improvise many car repairs.

Early Life and Marriage

Bertha Benz was born Cäcilie Bertha Ringer on May 3, 1849, in Pforzheim, then located in the Grand Duchy of Baden. Her family was wealthy. Before she married Karl Benz, she invested part of her inheritance into his iron construction company. Under German law, she lost her ability to act as an investor after their marriage in 1872. However, her money provided financial support for his new venture, Benz & Cie. Karl completed his first motorized vehicle in 1885. Although Bertha financed the invention of the Patent-Motorwagen and contributed many improvements, such as an improved fuel line and brake pads, she was not allowed to be listed on the patent.

Karl and Bertha had five children. Eugen was born in 1873, Richard in 1874, Clara in 1877, Thilde in 1882, and Ellen in 1890.

The Patent-Motorwagen

Karl Benz patented the Patent-Motorwagen in 1886. Over the next decade, he would build 25 versions. One version was the Model II, which could be converted into a four-seater. The Model III was the first version to be sold to the public. The vehicle featured rear-wheel drive. The front-wheel was steerable. Customers had options for seating arrangements and a fold-down canvas top.

First Cross-Country Automobile Journey

Bertha Benz woke up Eugen and Richard, her two oldest children, one August morning in 1888 and had them push the Model III into the street. They accompanied her on the 65-mile trip to their grandmother's house. Before this trip, the vehicle had only been driven around town. Bertha made this trip to test the vehicle's abilities, prove to Karl that the automobile they both worked on could be a commercial success, and draw attention to their work.

During the drive, Benz's technical prowess was called upon repeatedly. She had to stop at a pharmacy to obtain ligroin, the solvent used to fuel the vehicle's engine. She fixed a clogged fuel line with her hatpin. She removed one of her garters to insulate a frayed wire. And when the wooden brakes started failing, she asked a cobbler to make leather pads to cover them, thereby inventing the world's first brake pads. When she arrived in Pforzheim, she sent a telegram to her husband telling him of her feat.

Benz's drive attracted the publicity she wanted. It was a turning point in the development of automobiles. Her experiences on the trip drove several innovations, including the ability for the vehicle to go over hills and the addition of brake linings to improve the car's stopping power.

Later Life

Bertha Benz died in 1944, in the house where they had set up a new workshop and established Benz and Sons in Ladenburg. Karl died in 1929. Before his death, he wrote of Bertha that she sustained him and made his invention possible. Today, their home is a historic landmark and a meeting facility for a scientific nonprofit.

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