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The Road Trip That Changed Everything

By David Gregory Pihl

"Along the way, she drove through every town that had a decent apothecary so she could buy fuel. The chemist’s shop in Wiesloch became the world’s first fuel station. By default, at first, but later by design. The service station still stands."


The note she left behind probably said, “Karl, I’m going home to mother. I’m taking the boys with me." The boys pushed the car out of the garage and probably down the street a little so that sleeping Karl wouldn’t hear the engine start.

Bertha came from a wealthy family, and part of her dowry had kept Karl’s previous business ventures afloat. But after several years of focused effort, his latest invention didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Literally.

He’d been working on it for many years, and even secured a patent one year earlier. But his efforts seemed to be at a dead end. Hence Bertha’s decision to take the boys and go.

Her father may have been very wealthy, but he started out as a simple carpenter. He knew about poverty from first-hand experience, and he was quick to warn his daughter against marrying this penniless tinkerer.

He also taught his daughter a lot of things that most women had no clue about, such as science, math, and engineering. And that’s what intrigued Bertha so much about this poor introverted inventor. This man who kept conveniently bumping into her whenever they miraculously ended up on the same train (what a coincidence).

He talked to her as a colleague and not his inferior. They talked endlessly about engineering concepts, and especially about Karl’s dream: to build a horseless carriage.

By the mid-1880’s it was settled science that women cannot do math. Their brains weigh less than a man’s brain, after all. How can they possibly process logic or complex engineering concepts? Besides, if you educate a woman in these areas, how will she retain the physical ability to bear children?

Bertha must have been a fluke! She could do math. She and Karl had worked side by side on this horseless carriage throughout their entire marriage. She could explain to you how it worked, just as she could describe any number of other technologies of the steam age.

The problem with Karl is that he was an introvert and a perfectionist. A year after patenting his motorwagen, he hadn’t managed to sell any—it had to be perfect first. Bertha’s family had grown impatient, and frankly, so had Bertha.

As far as she was concerned, the model three was good enough. So, she took the boys and set out in the Patent Motorwagen. They drove from Mannheim all the way to Pforzheim in a vehicle that had barely ever been driven around the block.

Along the way, she drove through every town that had a decent apothecary so she could buy fuel. The chemist’s shop in Wiesloch became the world’s first fuel station. By default, at first, but later by design. The service station still stands.

Karl had designed an engine that ran on a petroleum-based cleaning solution. One pharmacist saw the oil stains on Bertha’s clothes and tried to explain that she wouldn’t have to buy so much ligroin just to treat such little stains. But she bought all the ligroin (benzine) she could get, at every apothecary between Mannheim and Pforzheim.

Karl’s engine design had a large carburetor, but no fuel tank. Which was fortuitous, as it provided her many opportunities to become a cause célèbre.

At one point in their journey, the fuel line became blocked. Far from clueless and defeated, Bertha used her hatpin to clear the line. Another time, the ignition overheated, leaving an exposed wire. Far from clueless and defeated, Bertha used her garter for insulation. She knew it would provide the necessary electrical properties.

Yet another time, she had a hard time stopping, which had already caused problems. One time that Karl demonstrated the patent motorwagen, it bumped into a wall, which frightened everybody into thinking this thing was much too complicated for ordinary folks.

So Bertha sought the help of a shoemaker. Together, they created the first brake pads. Leather shoes for your brakes. Credit for the invention goes to the woman who wasn’t supposed to understand physics or engineering. We still use the same basic concept on modern cars, and for certain styles of brakes, we even call them brake shoes.

Bertha had difficulty going up certain grades, so she occasionally hired local farm hands to push them up the hill. This quickly led to the subsequent creation of an engine with multiple gears.

By the time Bertha telegraphed Karl about their safe arrival in Pforzheim, she had accomplished a lot more than driving the kids to her parent’s house. She had demonstrated to the world that the car could handle long road trips.

And that she (a woman!) could operate Karl’s patent motorwagen. Which had exactly the effect that she intended. People began to think that if a woman can drive this contraption, anybody could drive it! She used sexist stereotypes to her advantage, and the orders for cars began pouring in.

One final complication arose as a consequence of Bertha taking the car without asking: Karl was supposed to demonstrate the car at an upcoming show. He replied to her telegraph that he needed the drive train immediately. So Bertha had a local blacksmith quickly build an extra chain so she could send one off to Mannheim right away.

On the journey home, there were reporters waiting in various towns along the way. More than a century before modern marketing techniques came along, Bertha made international headlines with her road trip. In other words, her viral marketing campaign, (well before the invention of viral marketing), was a resounding success.

Was the patent motorwagen the very first horseless carriage?


And Gottlieb Daimler was chomping at his heels.

But Karl Benz’ Patent Motorwagen was essentially the first car that anybody’d ever heard of.

And that’s because of the marketing genius of his wife, Cäcilia Bertha Ringer Benz.

To the anomalous woman able to operate a computer, the following hyperlink may be of interest:


David Gregory Pihl is an armchair historian. His research focuses primarily on obscure inventors who have been marginalized because of sex, religious affiliation, or geographical location. People who changed the world, but nobody noticed. David lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from the University of Utah.

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