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Bertha Benz – The steadfast visionary

A young Bertha Ringer poses for a picture at the end of the 1860s. In this photograph she is wearing a voluminous checked dress and sporting an elegant upswept hairstyle.
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Bertha Benz helped invent the car and, with her husband, changed the world.

“Unfortunately, it was just another girl.” These words stayed with Cäcilie Bertha Ringer long after she first read them at the age of ten. She had been sitting in the parlour of her parents’ house in Pforzheim, Germany, with the family Bible open; the end papers of the book were where her parents recorded important events and where she found those painful words written about 3 May 1849 – the day Bertha was born. The family already included two daughters by then – Emilie Auguste Louise and Elise Mathilde – but as yet no son and heir. Who would take over her father’s construction business? Who would look after the family?

This attitude was typical of the times, but had a profound impact on Bertha Benz. In later life, her friend Elisabeth Trippmacher said that Bertha always remembered the words, “and whenever she thought about them, she did something to prove that even girls could do the extraordinary and achieve great things.” Biographer Barbara Leisner describes the young Bertha Ringer as ambitious, curious, with a lively mind and a great interest in technical innovations.

Engineer Carl Benz met Bertha on 27 June 1869, when she was 24 years old. As they became acquainted during an excursion organised by the “Eintracht” social club, he found her to be an attentive conversationalist, and remarkably well-educated. “Bertha Ringer was the name of this vivacious youngster from Pforzheim, who from that moment joined the circle of my ideas and interests as a co-determiner and advisor,” the 80-year-old Benz wrote in his autobiography. She was to become “a second driving force, constantly giving new impetus to `{`his`}` creative work and endeavours in the face of obstructive resistance.” It was her tenacity and talent that would help him eventually realise his vision of creating an engine-powered horseless carriage.

Bertha had such faith in her fiancé’s idea that she supported him with all the means at her disposal, asking her parents to pay out her dowry of 4,244 guilders so she could invest it in his company. Before too long, financial difficulties struck Carl Benz: together with shareholder August Ritter, Benz had bought a plot of land in the booming industrial town of Mannheim, where he intended to live with Bertha after their marriage. He opened a mechanical workshop and was already working on his first orders. But with high interest payable on the loan and after a dispute with Ritter, the young couple decided it would be best to buy out the partner’s share as soon as possible. For this, Carl needed Bertha’s money. In spite of her love for Carl, Bertha pragmatically insisted on a marital agreement that ensured her dowry would remain her own property. On 20 July 1872, Carl and Bertha Benz were married at the Schlosskirche, a church in Pforzheim.

This black-and-white photograph from 1883 shows Bertha Benz with her four children. From left to right: her youngest daughter Thilde, Clara, her oldest son Eugen, and Richard.

Without this money and encouragement from his energetic wife, the young inventor may well have given up and sought employment elsewhere. After all, Europe was in the throes of a stock market crisis, which in 1873 was also having an unsettling effect on the German economy – though Carl Benz had many ideas for constructing machinery for a wide range of industries, the orders failed to materialise. In July 1877, with Bertha expecting their third child, the bailiffs seized the workshop and Carl Benz had to go even deeper into debt to be able to work at all. Nevertheless, Bertha Benz still believed in his automobile vision – an idea that had long since become their joint dream. “We talked about his plans all the time,” she remembered later. “That’s how I became so familiar with all the technology.” According to Leisner, her biographer, Bertha was able to contribute to technical developments in machine construction, understand his plans and put forward her own ideas.

The staff would eventually come to call Bertha Benz “the foreman”, a title normally reserved for factory managers. But Carl Benz could not afford to employ staff yet; he first had to get the two-stroke engine he had spent years tinkering with to work. On New Year’s Eve 1879, it was ready. “We have to go to the workshop one more time and try our luck,” Bertha Benz said to her husband, inspired by some kind of compulsion. Later on, he would tell the story: “And once again we stood in front of the engine as if it were a great, barely solvable mystery. Our hearts were pounding. I switched on the ignition. The machine sputtered to life. The beats of this sound of the future followed each other in a beautiful, regular rhythm. Deeply moved, we listened to this monotonous song for more than an hour.”

A black-and-white drawing from the late 19th century showing Bertha Benz and her husband Carl sitting in the patent motor car. In the background are curious onlookers.

Though Mannheim’s business community found the new-fangled machine diverting, nobody wanted to spend money on something so expensive and so unproven. When disputes arose with two more business partners, Bertha stayed by her husband’s side. “Just one person remained with me in the small ship of life when it seemed destined to sink. That was my wife,” said Carl Benz. “She was undaunted by life’s storms. Valiant and courageous, she hoisted new sails of hope. If it hadn’t been for her, who knows what might have happened.”

In view of the many setbacks he experienced, Carl Benz must have often questioned whether he was doing the right thing. Bertha Benz, by contrast, lived by the motto, “Work and don’t despair.” Her attitude paid off. On 29 January 1886, Carl Benz filed a patent for his motor car “powered by a gasoline engine”; to win some deserved attention for this development, in August 1888 Bertha and her sons undertook the first long-distance journey in the series version of the patented motor car. One of the first people to express an interest was a woman teacher from Hungary. “Unfortunately,” wrote the engineer, “her financial resources were not as great as her enthusiasm. However, enthusiastic women always find a way, and she was able to inspire one of her colleagues to sacrifice all his ready money for the car.” It is not known what Bertha Benz thought of this woman. However, we can imagine how proud she was.