Bertha Benz – the inspirational woman who paved the way for the automotive industry

Her spectacular endurance journey, all the way from Mannheim to Pforzheim, not only helped the automobile to achieve a breakthrough: it made the entire process of innovation possible thanks to her courage, determination and idealism. Without her gift for business and her support, her husband, Carl Benz, would probably never have achieved the social and economic rewards that his invention brought him.


Not a typical lady from good stock

On an August day in 1888, Bertha Benz visited a chemist’s shop to buy more fuel for her broken-down car. Anyone who is familiar with the customs of the period will understand the bewildered look with which the chemist met her. After all, wasn’t her duty to take care of her household and family? So what drove this well-mannered young lady to embark on such an adventure?

Bertha Benz around 1870

Bertha Benz around 1870

Cäcilie Bertha Ringer was born in 1849 in Ladenburg as the daughter of a well-to-do family. Nevertheless, her father was not an aristocrat, but a carpenter who had made a substantial fortune from property as a result of hard work and a head for business. However, the fact that she shared her father’s talent would only become apparent much later on.

Bertha, who showed an interest in technology at an early age, attended a school for young ladies from the age of eight onwards. At a time when women were still denied access to higher education, there was no question of her ever continuing her studies at university. Nevertheless, there was a ray of hope: the natural sciences.

As such, it was no wonder that Bertha listened attentively to her future husband, Carl Benz, when he sat down in her carriage by chance in 1869 and began talking to her about his vision. Even at an early age, this talented man from an ordinary background had begun pursuing his idea of building a motorised carriage that would not rely on horses for power. Against her family’s wishes, the couple married in 1872. A year before this, however, Bertha had her dowry paid so that she could invest it in her husband’s company.

Later on, she would be the one who demonstrated the practical uses of the Benz Patent Motorwagen through the first ever long-distance automobile journey, thereby helping her husband’s invention to achieve a gradual breakthrough.

Bertha Benz’s role in the invention of the automobile

As early as 1871, Carl Benz had founded his first business with a partner. Even at this time, he busied himself with a two-stroke engine. Nevertheless, the family’s economic breakthrough was not achieved until twelve years later, when he founded his second company, the Rheinische Gasmotorenfabrik. From that point onwards, the necessary funds were available to promote and develop the automobile as a concept. On the way to inventing the automobile, Carl Benz invented and improved upon a number of components, including differential drive, the clutch, water cooling, and geared transmissions — components without which the majority of today’s cars would be inconceivable.

On 29 January 1886, the patent for the Benz Motorwagen was finally registered. From a contemporary perspective, the patent letter can be seen as the birth certificate of the automobile. At the time, however, the public reaction was much more strained: orders were not forthcoming. Without his courageous wife, whom Carl Benz himself described as his only source of hope, he would probably have abandoned his project without seeing it through to the end. While Carl Benz undoubtedly saw the practical applications and economic potential of his invention, it was his wife who proved it to the rest of the world. Two years after the patent was registered, Bertha had had enough of waiting and made her own way back to her family home in Pforzheim, taking two of her sons with her. The 106 kilometre route took the mother-of-five and two of her sons in an unproven vehicle over roads that had been designed for horses and carts, not for cars.

As they made their way past shying horses and cursing farmers, the brakes were tested to their limit while steep gradients meant they had to get out and push. Before taking the trip, Bertha had deliberately not sought her husband’s permission – with his cautious manner, he would never have allowed it.

However, this automotive pioneer deserves praise for more than just her courage in making a journey of this nature in such a primitive vehicle. She also had the necessary talent for improvisation to overcome the Motorwagen’s technical shortcomings.

The Patent Mmotorwagen in 1925

Patent Motorwagen with Karl and Bertha Benz - © Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

While on her journey, she cleared a blocked valve using her hat pin and replaced the frayed insulation of an ignition cable with a garter from her stocking. Quite as an aside, the experiences from the first long-distance journey created some technical improvements to the Motorwagen. 

Benz Motorwagen No. 3

The 1888 Benz Patent Motorwagen was the vehicle Bertha Benz used for her legendary journey - Source: - Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

A business woman worthy of the history books

Carl Benz is often described as a rather introverted tinkerer who was blessed with technical genius. If left to his own devices, his lack of business senses would probably never have enabled him to set the automobile on the route to success, as a result of which it still counts as one of the most important achievements of our age.

Such a ground-breaking innovation could only be created by the combination of a creative mind with a talent for business. While Carl Benz was motivated by his vision, Bertha was determined to teach her critics a lesson. As such, she went all in and used her fortune to support her husband, and therefore it seems only logical that she would be the one to overcome obsolete social norms and embark on her historic journey.

An inspiration for women in the automotive industry and beyond

Bertha Benz was not only the first ever woman to drive a car: she also undertook the first-ever long-distance car journey. Her significance as a role model who led the way for women who follow their ideals and who are not afraid to use all their resources to make their dreams come true, is beyond dispute. In the final analysis, not only was her financial prosperity at stake for Bertha Benz: her health was, too, and she herself would later admit that, in view of the brakes’ inability to cope with downhill stretches, she only survived the trip in one piece through pure luck.

Even today, a woman at the helm remains a curiosity in many businesses, and in many respects there is as much work to be done as there ever was. Powerful women in the mould of Bertha Benz, Amelia Earhart or Geraldine Mock are exactly what high-tech industries need to drive progress, thanks to their technical understanding and their entrepreneurial spirit. There are a wide variety of opportunities to achieve the extraordinary, as a glance at our ARTS Job Board shows – offering the opportunity for you, as a woman, to become a pioneer in the engineering, aerospace or automotive industry and play your part in building the society of the future.

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