The car was co-invented by a woman, Bertha Benz but patent laws wouldn’t recognize her work

Hans · Mar 9, 2021 11:44 AM

History will recognize Carl Benz as the inventor of the modern automobile. Berlin’s Imperial Patent Office granted Mr. Carl Benz of the Benz & Co. company in Mannheim as owner of patent number DRP 37435, which regarded the Benz Patent Motorwagen 1886 as the world’s first modern automobile – with an internal combustion and electric ignition.

The only reason Carl Benz was solely credited for the invention of the car was simply because German patent laws at that time didn’t allow women to register any patents.

In truth, the invention of the automobile was the work of both Carl Benz and his wife Bertha. The Benz & Co. company was funded by his wife’s dowry. In modern terms, Bertha was the venture capitalist who funded the Benz startup.

Right from the beginning, Bertha worked with her husband Carl to design the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen’s rudimentary 2.0-litre single-cylinder 0.75 horsepower four-stroke engine.

A replica of the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart

In fact, historical documents suggests that she might actually be more familiar with the car than her husband, as proven by the improvements she made to the car’s design during its maiden test drive.

The original male-centric narrative of Carl Benz as the inventor of the automobile, written by men of course, is now being revised to post-humously grant Bertha the credit due to her.

Carl was a brilliant engineer but his skills were limited only to the workshop. Despite lacking in education, Bertha instinctively understood the need for field trials before improvements can be made, and repeating the same work in the same workshop won’t bring any results.

She was also the better business person, having funded Benz & Co.

After being ridiculed by conservative folks at that time for building a ‘devil’s carriage’ (society then thinks only a devil / black magic can move a carriage without a horse), Carl lacked the confidence to show his car to the public.

Fed up with her husband’s fear to push further, Bertha decided to conduct the world’s first test drive on her own. Since women back then were not allowed to travel unaccompanied by men, she woke her sons, Richard and Eugen up in one early morning of August 1888, and went on a 180 km (106 km there, 70 km back) return trip to her mother’s home in Pforzheim.

Of course the car broke down many times, and each time she did roadside repairs on her own, and along the way, had upgrades fitted to it – like having a cobbler install leather linings on her car’s wooden brakes, thus inventing the world’s first brake pad.

The rudimentary ignition system also gave problems, which she traced to poor insulating materials used on the ignition wire, which she fixed with her garter. The engine also stalled often, which she traced to bad fuel lines, which she unclogged with her hair pin. The engine often also overheated as the water in the cooling system evaporated too quickly.

The pharmacy in Wiesloch where she stopped by to buy 10 litres of “Ligroin” is the world’s first ‘petrol station.’

All these actions proved that she was indeed the co-inventor of the car. After a 12-hour journey, Bertha sent a telegram to tell Carl that his invention worked well enough and that it just needed a few more upgrades. She returned to Mannheim with the car a few days later, taking a shorter route.

With results from her test drive, Carl installed a 2-speed transmission and better brakes for the car. A total of 25 units of the 1886 Benz Patent Motorwagen were built.

Her life and work with Carl Benz was the subject of a German movie Carl Und Bertha Benz.

Key moments are:

42:00 starting of Benz two-stroke engine

1:00:00 first test drive (which failed)

1:12:00 Carl wants to give up, Bertha decides to take over herself

Bertha passed away in 1944. She would be proud to know that today, Mercedes-Benz is one of the most progressive company in the automotive industry, having one of the most female representation for any company listed on Germany’s DAX.

Closer to home, women fill up 39 percent of leadership positions at Mercedes-Benz Malaysia, one of the highest for any car company here. 

The company's She's Mercedes platform is the only one of its kind by a leading car company to connect, inspire and empower women worldwide.

Two years ago, Mercedes-Benz partnered with toy-maker Matchbox to encourage girls to play with cars. Nice!

For this International Women's Day, we want to tell our daughters, wives, and mothers that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to, just like Bertha Benz did 142 years ago.