A Brief History
On January 29, 1886, Karl Benz, a German engineer, became the first person to patent a successful gasoline powered automobile. Not counting impractical inventions and steam powered cars, the Benz Patent Motorcar was the first of what we would recognize as a “real” automobile,” although of course it looked a lot different from the sleek machines we see on the roads today. A funny looking 3 wheeled flimsy vehicle, the Benz creation was the first internal combustion engine car built to actually be sold on the commercial market. Its 1 liter gasoline powered engine produced a pathetic 2/3 horsepower!
Right off the bat we can point out an interesting bit of sexist “trivia” concerning the invention of the automobile. That historical tidbit is that it was the wife of Karl Benz that financed his endeavor to develop the first motorcar, and if this had occurred today it would have been Bertha Benz that received the patent, not Karl! Back in those days a married woman could not be granted a patent, and it fell upon her husband to receive the patent instead.
Karl Benz was born in Mühlburg in what is now Germany in 1844, originally named Karl Vailant, as his parents did not marry until after little Karl was born. His father, Johann Georg Benz, was a railroad engineer. Karl was a superior student and embarked on an engineering oriented education, at first studying locksmithing and then switching to railroad engineering. Despite his father dying when Karl was only 2 years old, the young man went on to a University education, first at the Polytechnical-University (kind of a college prep high school) and then at the University of Karlsruhe from which he graduated in 1864 (age 19) with a degree in mechanical engineering. His work history took him to various companies and positions, but Karl had a hard time finding his true calling.
In 1871, Benz founded a metal working company in Mannheim with a partner that turned out to be less than reliable, leading the company toward ruin until his fiancé, Bertha Ringer, saved the company by buying out the unproductive partner. Bertha had used her wedding dowry to finance the purchase, and she and Karl were married in 1872, a productive marriage that produced the automobile and 5 children, lasting until Karl’s death in 1929. (Note: Karl Benz, the inventor of the automobile, was still alive when this author’s father was born, making the history of the car seem that much more contemporary and less distant.) Karl concentrated on developing workable gasoline engines, especially of the 2 stroke variety. He patented a working engine in 1879 and pioneered the development of the gasoline engine to a composite of the systems we are familiar with today. Benz also worked on making his engines useful, developing forms of gear shifts and clutches to transfer the power generated into useful work.
Karl and Bertha pulled out of his company when local bankers forced the company to become incorporated. Benz founded a new company, and tinkered with mating his engines to bicycles and various industrial machines. The first Benz patented motorcar could zip along at 16 kilometers per hour (about 10 mph), and the first commercially offered model, though with a larger 1.6 liter motor, could only make 13 kph. The water cooled gasoline powered cars were made in increasingly improved models, with horsepower slowly climbing with subsequent models. A tricycle arrangement with large diameter bicycle type wheels, the steering was accomplished through the use of a tiller.
Bertha Benz made major contributions to the development of the motorcar, taking one on a “long distance” (65 mile) drive, the first such automobile trip in history. Not only did the trip prove the viability of the motorcar, her observations about the lack of hill climbing ability and poor braking led to the development of geared drive for hill climbing and brake pads, using leather to line the brakes instead of metal on metal engagement. Bertha was also a prime mover in the marketing of the Benz products.
Benz continued development of his gasoline engines and his motorcars, and by 1909, had invented a 200 horsepower speedster that could travel a record speed of 141 mph. The so called Blitzen Benz held the land speed record for a whopping 10 years, and was substantially faster than the airplanes of its day. World War I disrupted the commercial sale of automobiles, and while Benz and his company survived the war and its aftermath, the 1920’s were hard years for German industry. Benz merged his company with Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG), a competing German car company in 1926, creating Daimler-Benz, maker of the Mercedes-Benz automobiles. The new company succeeded in producing automobiles of the highest quality, and began producing diesel engine trucks in 1928. M-B later merged with Chrysler, the American automaker in 1998, and when the companies parted ways in 2007, Daimler-Benz became Daimler AG.
Karl Benz died at the age of 84 in 1929, and Bertha lived until 1944. The couple left behind a legacy of automotive innovation and excellence, and today the Benz name is associated with the highest quality cars and trucks in the business. The answer to the question, “Who invented the automobile?” has to be “Karl and Bertha Benz,” because only naming Karl would be totally misleading. Bertha Benz deserves mention when answering this question and we hope to correct the popular perception with this article.
Questions for Students (and others): Have you ever owned a Daimler-Benz product? Were you aware of Bertha Benz’s contributions to the development of the automobile? Do you know who the first American automobile manufacturer/inventor was?
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For more information, please see…
Adkins, Jan. Bertha Takes a Drive: How the Benz Automobile Changed the World. Charlesbridge, 2017.
Bankston, John. Karl Benz and the Single Cylinder Engine. Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2004.
Harris, Amelia. THE UNTOLD SAGA OF BERTHA BENZ: KARL BENZ WIFE: INVENTOR OF MERCEDES BENZ. Amelia Gagu Harris Publishers, 2016.
Ludvigsen, Karl. MERCEDES-BENZ – Guide (History of the Automobile). Edizioni Savine, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of the 1885 Benz Patent Motorwagen, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.