Women in Transportation History: Bertha Benz, World’s First Long-Distance Motorist

One day in August 1888, Bertha Benz (1849-1944) made transportation history when she undertook the first long-distance automobile drive on record. Bertha, who lived in the city of Mannheim in the German Empire state known as the Grand Duchy of Baden (part of the present-day Federal Republic of Germany), used one of the automobiles built by her husband Karl Benz for this pioneering road trip.

Karl had worked on that type of vehicle for about a dozen years before completing it in 1885. This three-wheeled vehicle, known as the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, is widely regarded as the world’s first functioning automobile. While Karl created the Motorwagen and obtained a patent for it, Bertha was ultimately the one who demonstrated the vehicle’s true potential.

The Benz Patent-Motorwagen Nr. 3 of the year 1888

One reason why Bertha wanted to take the Motorwagen out on its first extended journey was so that she could visit her mother in the city of Pforzheim (approximately 65 miles, or 104 kilometers, from Mannheim), but her larger objective was to showcase for a still-wary public the viability and safety of the “horseless carriage” that her husband had invented. She also sought to boost her husband’s own wavering confidence in the value of his product.

It appears that Karl had no knowledge of his wife’s planned excursion. Before Bertha and their teenage sons Richard and Eugen headed out early one August morning, she left a note for her sleeping husband in which she outlined her intention to drive to Pforzheim.

Bertha and her sons subsequently pushed one of the Motorwagens out of the garage on their property. They kept pushing the automobile along until they were far enough from their house that they could start up the vehicle without waking up Karl. The three travelers were soon out on the open road in the Motorwagen, which reached a speed of 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) per hour.

Bertha and her sons encountered their fair share of technical challenges with the vehicle during the course of the trip, but she managed to troubleshoot each one with great resourcefulness. When a fuel line became clogged, she used a hairpin to clear it. After an electric ignition cable frayed, she used a garter to insulate it. When the brakes began wearing down, she had a cobbler reinforce them with leather. Along with resolving those problems, Bertha enlisted the services of a blacksmith to mend one of the automobile’s chains.

Yet another challenge involved the fact that the Motorwagen was not able to climb hills on its own power. When they did encounter a hill en route, Bertha had her sons – with assistance from some local residents – push the vehicle upward.

The travelers arrived in Pforzheim at dusk, and Bertha sent a telegram to her husband to assure him that they arrived there safely. After spending three days with her mother, Bertha and her sons drove back to Mannheim. She bought the solvent Ligroin from a pharmacy in Pforzheim to use as fuel for the vehicle’s return trip.

Bertha’s long-distance journey was an undisputed success. It resonated with the public and helped stoke greater-than-before enthusiasm for the Motorwagen and its possibilities. In addition, Bertha returned home with several recommended improvements for the vehicle. She suggested, for example, that Karl invent and install a gear that would allow the Motorwagen to make its way over hills without having to be pushed.

In 2008, the Bertha Benz Memorial Route was officially established to commemorate the historic automotive journey that she initiated and led. The signposted route, covering about 121 miles (194 kilometers) altogether, retraces Bertha’s round trip between Mannheim and Pforzheim.

For more information on Bertha Benz and her trailblazing 1888 road trip, please check out https://www.history.com/news/bertha-benz-hits-the-road and http://mentalfloss.com/article/63226/bertha-benz-and-first-ever-road-trip.

Additional information on the Bertha Benz Memorial Route is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bertha_Benz_Memorial_Route.

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