Meet Bertha Benz, The Woman Who Took The First Real Drive

As Google's doodle reminded me, today is International Women's Day. It's kind of alarming how much I rely on something called a "Google Doodle" to know what's going on. So, in honor of women, I'd like to talk about one woman who's been a hero of mine for many years: Bertha Benz, the first person to take a real road trip in a private, petroleum-powered car.

There's been automobiles and automobile trips long before this point, but those were mostly steam vehicles, and most of the extended trips were multi-passenger bus-service types of trips. The idea of a private car, especially a petroleum car, used to take a private road trip in 1888 was basically how we'd think of taking a teleporter trip today.

But that didn't stop Mrs.Benz. As you may have guessed by the name, Bertha was married to Karl Benz, the engineer who developed his Patent Motorwagen in 1886, which many people feel to be the most direct ancestor of modern gasoline cars. Bertha was very involved in the whole process, and had a keen engineering mind as well. She also had two things Karl lacked: money and freedom from depression and overwhelming perfectionism. Okay, three things.

Meet Bertha Benz, The Woman Who Took The First Real Drive

Bertha's family helped provide the funding for Karl's work, research and his building of the three original prototypes. Karl was also prone to bouts of self-doubt and depression, and would endlessly tinker with his cars, not wanting to promote them until they were absolutely perfect, which is, of course, impossible for anything, let alone automobiles in the late 1800s.

Bertha was a wife, but also an investor, and a shrewd marketer. She understood that in order for this to be a success, people had to actually see the cars run and drive, and she knew her husband would never attempt anything more than the short test runs he'd been driving. Bertha knew something more dramatic was needed.

And so, one of history's greatest "fuck it, I'm doing this" moments was born.

Bertha took the three-wheeler to see her mom. This doesn't sound like a big deal now, but then it was like saying "I'm gonna go visit my mom who lives on an orbiting platform, and to get there I'm going to take this experimental anti-gravity pod that runs on niobium, which I'll just figure out how to find along the way. See ya!"

Her mom lived over 60 miles away, in Pforzheim, and Bertha had to plan her route around apothecary shops in villages where she could buy ligroin, which was a petroleum distillate occasionally used as a solvent and cleaner, and also what Benz' car ran on. She went with her two teen sons, Eugen and Richard, and, best of all, she did it without Karl knowing about it.

She knew Karl would never let her do it in the machine he was endlessly tinkering with, and she had much more confidence and faith in it than he did. So she and her sons pushed it out of the driveway so they could start it without waking him, and took off.

She did leave a note, though. I'd kill to know what it said. Here's what I imagine:

Morning Honey!

Hope you slept well. I took the kids to go visit Nana Ringer — they're so excited. We'll be back in a couple days! There's long strings of sausages hanging all over the house because, you know, we're German, so help yourself!

much love,

Bertie

P.S. Oh, by the way, to get there we took one of your three priceless experimental motorwagen prototypes that you or anyone else in the world has ever driven more than a kilometer or so for the trip. I'm pretty sure I can get fuel, but as you know there's no parts and you're the only person in the world who knows how these things work in case anything on these hand-built highly experimental machines breaks. Also, everyone's gonna look at me like I'm some kind of witch from the future.

Okay! See you soon!

The woman had guts. The trip wasn't easy, as you'd imagine. There weren't road maps as we know them, so she had to find her own winding route through the little towns in between Mannheim and Pforzheim. And she did have breakdowns, but that didn't stop her. Some repairs she had help with, like when a blacksmith repaired a drive chain, or she had a shoemaker add leather to the braking blocks, which means that she invented brake pads on the trip as well. Other repairs she did on her own, with incredible resourcefulness and details that are so woman-of-the-era charming it hurts: she fixed a clogged fuel line with a long hat pin, and she improvised new insulation for a wire (must have been spark plug wire— what other wires did that thing have?) with her garter.

Meet Bertha Benz, The Woman Who Took The First Real Drive

She did it. Grandma was visited, and car was driven, and the result of which was that all of a sudden everyone was talking about the incredible Benz Patent Motorwagen. It was a huge success as a marketing stunt, and the trip was useful as a test drive as well, prompting Karl to add in a low-range gear so the 2/3 HP car could make it up the hills that Bertha found herself stuck on, as well as adding Bertha's improvement on the braking system.

Is this woman awesome, or what? Every gearhead owes a huge debt to this ballsy/ovaries-y lady. Without her, Karl Benz would have spent the rest of his life obsessively trying to get that motor up from 2/3 HP to a massive 7/8 HP. Thanks, Bertha.

(sources: Wikipedia, University of Houston, research relating to this project)