The early days of the automobile are populated with images of dashing, young, well-to-do men tooling around in their new and somewhat dangerous toys. Then, as today, the ladies seemed to simply be along for the ride.
Of course, those images don’t nearly tell the whole story.
This spring break I did what thousands of moms do–I packed up the kids and we took a road trip to see my mom. But it’s a little-known fact that the very first road trip in an automobile was taken by another mom with her two sons, fixing to go home to see Mother. That lady’s name was Bertha Benz.
Benz…Benz…where have I heard that name before, you’re thinking. Maybe this will help you out.
That’s right…that Benz. Karl Benz was a German inventor who developed the first patented automobile in 1885. His fiancee, Bertha Ringer, believed in his work so much that she used her dowry to finance his workshop, becoming his business partner as well as his wife.
Now, Mister Athena had to work, and he’s been working very hard lately, both at his job and the honey-do list around the house. So he couldn’t accompany us on the trip. We left him at home alone, along with guy movies and cup o’noodles, to allow him time to work on his projects.
Well, the story goes that in August of 1888, Mrs. Benz did a similar thing. Up to then, the Benz Patent Motorwagen was largely only driven around the block and back, as its inventor tweaked its workings, amid the government’s disapproval of it as a noise nuisance and a public hazard. But like a supportive wife, Bertha Benz believed in her husband’s invention (having worked on it herself some), so she set out to do what he could or would not.
Like thousands of moms before me, I packed spare undies, jammies, special pillows and favorite blankets, and sternly limited the stuffed animals to one per child. I packed snacks, I packed activities, and I packed kids, and we headed out to my parents’ house five hours away.
Like hundreds of thousands (perhaps even millions) of moms that would come after her, Bertha Benz packed her two eldest sons (young teenagers at the time), snacks and supplies. She planned her route and planned for stops along the way and, without telling her husband, hopped up behind the wheel of the Number Three (the third prototype of the patented auto), and set out from Mannheim to Pforzheim to visit her mother.
She left in the morning and made five stops along the way. In addition to potty breaks, no doubt, and perhaps the very first utterances of some version of “Are we there yet?” Bertha Benz managed to create shock and awe among the witnesses to her sixty-mile trip, concept-test the prototype, become the world’s first DIY car mechanic, and perhaps the first person to really understand the future in gas stations. And in her spare time, she became an inventor herself.
When a fuel line became clogged, it was Bertha Benz who used the first bobby pin to un-jam it (actually, it was a hat pin–one of those long jobs with a pointy end). Another point in the trip, she discovered that the insulation to a spark plug wire had torn. Not one to let that slow her down, she slipped off her garter and used it to protect the wire.
The roads in southwestern Germany at the time were bumpy, hilly affairs. Getting up and down them led Bertha to realize that the ol’ Number Three could probably stand to have at least two gears instead of the single gear she had to deal with in order to get up the hills better. Of course, getting up the hills held one set of problems while going down them held another. The wooden blocks of the brakes were wearing out, and Mrs. Benz realized that a runaway automobile wasn’t going to make the proper impression on the public. So the enterprising traveling mom pulled into a local shoemaker’s shop and asked the cobbler there to fit her brakes with leather pads. Lo and behold, brake shoes were born.