Bertha Benz (1849 – 1944)

Bertha Benz (maiden name Ringer) May 3, 1849 – May 5, 1944

Bertha Ringer was born in 1849 in Pforzheim, Grand Duchy of Baden. She was the daughter of a wealthy family from the southwestern German town of Pforzheim. Not too many things are known until 1871 when she became the fiancee of Karl Benz.

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During the same year, Karl Benz joined August Ritter in launching the Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop in Mannheim, later renamed Factory for Machines for Sheet-metal Working. Things were going pretty bad between these two partners and Bertha decided to buy Ritter’s share in the company.

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On July 20, 1872, Karl Benz and Bertha Ringer married and the first of their five children arrived a year later.

They had five children:

  • Eugen (May 1, 1873 – March 9, 1958),
  • Richard (October 21, 1874 – September 19, 1955),
  • Clare ( August 1,1877 – ?)
  • Thilde (February 2, 1882 – )
  • Ellen (March 16, 1890 – )

After the marriage, Bertha Ringer changed her name in Bertha Benz and according to the laws in those days, Bertha lost her juridical power to act as an investor.

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When he lost control of the company shortly thereafter, Benz moved on, using Bertha’s continued financial support (and business acumen) to form a new manufacturing venture known as Benz & Cie. When the company proved successful, Karl was able to turn his attention to a lifelong dream—the creation of the first true automobile. After several years of failed attempts, Karl finally finished work on his first horseless carriage in December 1885.

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But the problems were just starting. The first few public displays of his new invention didn’t go well. Benz retreated to his factory, where he continually tinkered with his automobile in private. However, Bertha, whose inheritance had helped keep the family afloat in the lean years, didn’t give up. She was supporting Karl Benz in everything he did.

At that time, Dr. Carl Benz had already been granted a patent for his invention, the automobile, but potential customers still maintained many reservations because so far, the automobile had only covered very short distances. The Mannheim newspapers had already published reports about the carriage without horses, which were not too positive, though. At that time, Benz’ automobiles simply did not sell yet.

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Karl and Bertha faced some more obstacles when Germany’s Kaizer found about the Motorwagen. He loved horses and said that the idea of replacing them with a machine is not only foolish but also unpatriotic. The church had a negative opinion about the car as well. And there was added pressure from the competition just a few miles away; another German engineer, Gottlieb Daimler, had invented a horseless carriage of his own— the world’s first four-wheeled, high-speed automobile.

The first cross-country automobile adventure begins….

Frustrated by her husband’s apparent unwillingness to act on his own, Bertha took matters into her own hands. In early August 1888 (the date has been variously given as either August 5 or 12), Bertha packed up one of her husband’s cars, the recently completed Patent-Motorwagen No. 3 (model no. 3 had an additional front bench offering quite enough room for three persons), and with her two teenage sons in tow set out to visit her mother in Pforzheim. She didn’t tell Karl beforehand, but instead left him a letter informing him of her plans. She didn’t even ask for permission from the authorities.

She herself told later, “But Carl would never have allowed that. So, the two 13- and 15-year-old boys and I hatched a real conspiracy. We left early in the morning and had already traveled a couple of hours before daddy woke up.”

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First filling station was a pharmacy

Today, the difficulties Bertha Benz had to overcome during her first long-distance trip are hard to imagine.

After all, streets in the modern sense did not exist. In the country, you only had field tracks many of which had two deep ruts from the wheels of the horse carriages, with the front wheel of the three-wheeled motor car bumping over the turf ruined by the horses’ hooves.  In the towns, the situation was a little better, because the big streets were normally paved.

Bertha soon found out that there were no road signs! The few local coachmen commuting between the towns knew their way. The passengers in the coaches were usually busy holding on to something, were longing for the end of the tiresome trip, and hardly had any orientation through the side windows. At that time, when people had to travel long distances they normally preferred going by train.

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And exactly this was the solution intrepid Bertha Benz found for her problem. With her automobile, she went along the railway lines, and could not lose her way like that.

Carl Benz had only been able to estimate the fuel consumption of his automobile because he had only driven short distances on paved roads. But he had misestimated it greatly, because given the road conditions, the motor car needed so much fuel that it had to be refilled after a few kilometers. However, filling stations did not exist, either.

Repairs with a hairpin and a garterAs a result, the three courageous automobilists obtained Ligroin, a detergent used as a fuel at that time, in the Wiesloch pharmacy. Thus, the pharmacy in Wiesloch, which still exists today, became the world’s first filling station. To visit it, you should best leave your car in the ‘Palatin’ parking garage in Wiesloch because you have to walk a few yards into the pedestrians’ zone.

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The early motorist always had to have a good deal of technical know-how, because something always needed a repair. Oily hands were the rule rather than the exception.
So Bertha Benz and her sons drove by ear. If a chain had extended and now quite audibly missed individual teeth of the gears, they had to go to the blacksmith’s in Bruchsal to fix the chain.

However, two bad troubles happened in the middle of the road, so that “on-board” tools had to be used for the repair. These two pretty dramatic situations were described later as follows, rather coolly, by Bertha Benz, “The first time, the fuel line was clogged – my hairpin turned out to be helpful there. The second time the ignition was broken. I used my garter to fix it.”

However, Bertha Benz not only paved the way for a new image of women, she also demonstrated a capacity already in 1888 which has not become commonplace even today. Team spirit! In an interview she gave later she frankly admitted that her sons had also driven parts of the route. The driving service while their three-days’ stay in Pforzheim, which many interested citizens were keen on using, even was completely organized by Eugen, her 15-year-old son.

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On her return trip, she had to get her automobile fixed again because of all the uphill and downhill routes between Pforzheim and Bauschlott (Neulingen). Later, she herself wrote, “I will never forget the bit from Pforzheim to Bauschlott in my lifetime. For in Bauschlott, the shoemaker had to fit new leather to the brake blocks, after we had to push the vehicle several times before. When we left Bauschlott, things went relatively smooth again until we reached Bretten.”

The shoemaker’s name was Karl Bitsch, and he lived in what is the building located on Pforzheimer Strasse 18 today; he nailed the leather on the brake blocks for the courageous lady in front of the “Adler” guesthouse.

The trip undertaken by Bertha Benz changed the situation abruptly. The press now covered this event by detailed, positive reports, this great invention was on everyone’s lips, and Dr. Carl Benz received invitations from all over the world.

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Bertha Benz told later, “So I was the first one to show that ‘daddy’s’ automobile was also good for long distances.”
In return, Carl Benz had to admit, “She was much more courageous than me, and went on a decisive trip for the further development of the motor carriage.”

This was, probably, the most important marketing activity in the history. After this trip she stood along Karl Benz all of her life.

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In 1944, on her 95th birthday, Bertha Benz was honored with the title Honorable Senator, by the Technical University of Karlsruhe. This is her husband’s alma mater and they had awarded an honorary doctorate degree to him in his lifetime.

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Two days later, Bertha Benz died in her villa in Ladenburg, where the workshop of Karl Benz had been built after they had moved there in 1906 and he established a solely family-held business, Benz and Sons.

In 2011, a dramatized television movie about the life of Karl and Bertha Benz was made named Carl & Bertha which premiered on 11 May and was aired by Das Erste on 23 May. A trailer of the movie and a “making of” special were released on YouTube.