A trained mechanical engineer, Dr. Carl Benz patented the two-stroke engine, the gear shift and the water radiator. He also developed and built what is widely regarded as the first automobile, having been granted both German and international patents in 1886 for his "vehicle with gas engine."
Like so many women throughout history, Bertha Benz decided the best way to help her husband realize his dream, pay the rent and feed the children, would be to take matters into her own hands.
Before dawn one summer day in 1886, before Carl woke up and might stop her, Bertha piled two of their five children into the family wagon, officially to visit her mother (in German, their Oma).
We know from Bertha's diary (today it probably would be a blog) that along the journey she used a hat-pin to clear the fuel line, and figured out that brakes would need a brake liner to prevent them from failure. After returning home, she also suggested to her husband that he add a gear for climbing hills.
Bertha's entrepreneurial escapade was reported in the local press and helped change public perception of Carl's automobile, which had met with mostly skepticism and derision up to that point. She gave his car "street cred." He later credited her with making a decisive trip "for the further development of the motor carriage".
It took Bertha one full day each way to drive what Germany has named the Bertha Benz Memorial Route. It could take you even longer, with stops at some of Germany's most spectacular castles, including Heidelberg, Pforzheim and its gold jewelry museum, and the Formula-1 race course and motor sports museum at Hockenheim.
Another important stop is the Benz family villa and museum in Ladenburg, where Carl founded Benz and Sons in 1906 with the two boys Bertha had taken with her that August day in 1888. By the time the firm merged with Daimler in 1926, Benz and Sons had produced more than 300 vehicles in Ladenberg.
Along the driving route, there is also a memorial in the village of Wiesloch, which claims to be the world's first filling station. In 1888, only apothecaries carried the alcohol-based liquid needed for machinery such as the Benz motorwagen, and this was Bertha's first stop to refuel.
The city of Stuttgart -- home to both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche -- is a few miles south of Pforzheim. Both companies have excellent museums tracing the history of motorized transport and how it changed the world. Stuttgart also was the seat of the powerful and fabulously wealthy Baden-Wurtenberg family. One of the clan's castles is downtown, with a wealth of family jewels on display in one of the turrets. The climb up narrow stairs is worth it for the bling at the top.
Some facts to ponder on the journey:
- Although the Benz patent was two years earlier, Daimler's 1888 patent is the one widely credited as the start of the motorized era. It is Daimler's historic three-wheel vehicle, not the Benz, on display in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
- Daimler renamed his company in honor of the daughter of his first big order. Mercedes also was the name of the 1901 model, designed with Wilhelm Maybach, which was the world's fastest car at the time, a 35-horsepower marvel with a top speed of speed of 86.1 kilometers per hour.
- The Daimler and Benz companies merged in 1926. It was a forced marriage, shotgunned by German banks responding to lingering economic problems from WWI.
- Ferdinand Porsche was a designer for Gottlieb Daimler, but split off to form his own company after a falling out over racing and a small, low-cost vehicle he designed that the company did not want to build. Daimler didn't want to get into racing, and rejected the model which eventually became the VW Beetle.