Cleaning fluid for the “monster”.
“10 litres of ligroin?” The elderly chemist is not sure he has heard correctly. He adjusts his spectacles as if poor hearing can be corrected by a closer look. One thing is obvious: the lady’s dress is rather soiled. He thinks to himself that any lady venturing out in public in this state must be at least slightly crazy. Especially as the demeanour and speech of this particular lady are completely at odds with her appearance. “One litre of cleaning fluid will be plenty to remove the stains on your dress, madam” he says in a mixture of irritation and fatherly concern. But the strange lady in the soiled clothing insists on buying the shop’s entire stock of ligroin. Because she has no intention of washing anything. She wants to refuel. So that she can continue the world’s first long-distance journey with her Benz Patent Motor Car. The lady’s name is Bertha Benz.
A determined lady from a good family.
Bertha was born in 1849, into an age when women were denied access to higher education. Scientists were in agreement that the lighter brain of women was logically unable to absorb and process as much information. Moreover, thinking too much was harmful to their child-bearing ability. However, Bertha already became interested in technical matters at an early age. Whenever her father, a carpenter who had reached a position of considerable wealth, explained the workings of the locomotive to her, her eyes would light up. When she was allowed to attend a school for high-born daughters at the age of nine, her favourite lessons were those on “natural science”. She was all the more shocked when she read the following entry in the family bible one day: “Unfortunately only a girl again”. The entry had been made by none other than her beloved father when she was born. According to the legend, this triggered her subsequent determination to show the world that the female sex is also capable of great things.
Bertha Ringer was attractive, clever and socially accomplished when she reached marriageable age. And from a wealthy family. There was a long list of suitors. However, fate decreed that during a coach excursion organised by the “Eintracht” club on 27 June 1869, a penniless young engineer joined Bertha and her mother in their coach.
When he brought the subject around to the horseless carriage on which he was working, young Bertha lost her heart to him. Despite his careless appearance and odd manner: Carl Benz was the man she wanted by her side for the rest of her life.
Brave and uncompromising.
She turned a deaf ear to all her father’s warnings. He had himself only achieved wealth by hard work and clever real estate transactions. He now warned her repeatedly that the pleasures of the middle-class lifestyle do not come by themselves. And that financial hardship brings problems of which she did not have the slightest idea. But nothing dissuaded her from her wish to be married. She preferred the introverted tinkerer with a vision to a life in keeping with her station at the side of a “good match”. Without hesitation, and even before the wedding, she invested her entire dowry to build up the company formed by Benz. The early years were very hard. While Carl Benz was something of an unrecognised design genius, a talent for business was not one of his strengths.
Numerous setbacks followed for the growing family. Bertha Benz became no stranger to hunger, want and social ridicule. Yet whenever her husband was in despair, it was she who gave him the courage to continue. And despite all the misery, she never left his side.
Plan B for Bertha.
After decades of hard work and a never-ending series of setbacks, a patent was registered for the Motor Car on 29 January 1886, making Carl Benz the inventor of the automobile. Yet to the surprise of the Benz family, nobody was interested in buying. Was mankind about to dismiss such a technical breakthrough as an “also-ran”? The very thought of this was unbearable to the mother of five. So she summoned all her resolve: Bertha herself would undertake a long-distance journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim, and show the world what the automobile could do.
The weapons of a woman.
In the early hours of a fine August day in 1888, together with her sons Richard and Eugen, and without the knowledge of her husband, Bertha Benz took to the road with the Benz Patent Motor Car. She was undeterred by the fact that some stretches of the roads, which were normally used only by horses and carriages, were anything but suitable for the automobile. Lack of fuel, clogged valves or wiring chafed-through to breaking point – she found a solution to every difficulty on the journey. She resorted to a garter, a hat-pin, and plundered the ligroin stocks of pharmacies along the route. Even when the fuel ran out completely outside Wiesloch, and the Motor Car had to be pushed for several kilometres, she was not too proud to get down herself and help.
And her plan succeeded: while some of the onlookers would prostrate themselves on the road in prayer, fearing this “smoking monster” as a harbinger of the Last Judgement, others asked for a test ride.
Years of effort crowned by success.
Better late than never.
Decades of poverty and scorn now gave way to recognition and affluence. Many years were to pass before the innovation was generally accepted by the mass of the population. But in the 20th century the automobile was to become one of the most important cultural advances of the new era. Nobody would now dare to deny the great contribution to modern life made by the Benz family. And it was not least Bertha who made this possible: with her unshakeable belief, her capital and her bravery she made a major contribution to this success story. On her 95th birthday she was proclaimed an honorary senator by the Technical University of Karlsruhe. Bertha, who was never allowed to study herself because of the social constraints of her time. When she died two days later, she departed in peace. As a woman who allowed nothing and nobody to dissuade her from her visions.