The clerk at the Wiesloch city pharmacy seriously doubted the sanity of his customer, a woman in her late thirties in a dress as soiled as to make her appearance unacceptable amongst the good burghers of the town. Perhaps she was dangerous. Wiesloch was only ten miles south of Heidelberg, which had a university, and the good doctor was informed that some women had recently attempted to join the chemistry faculty. But the nature of the lady’s request was something he never had to consider before.
“You want ten litres of Ligroin?”, he stammered. Then he looked at the lady’s dress and noticed the stains. Ligroin was basically petroleum, and perhaps the lady wanted to improve her scandalous appearance. “I understand, Ma’am. But for these stains half a litre will do nicely, perhaps one litre.”
The lady insisted. The apothecary, unable to imagine what one might do with ten litres of petroleum except, perhaps, burn down a forest, asked for the reason of the peculiar order. “It’s for my automobile,” the fruitcake explained, and lead the man outside. There stood one contraption of a kind the good doctor had not seen before in his life. It was ridiculous. It looked as if someone had wanted to build a horse carriage, but had forgotten most of the top structure and the horses. It looked like this:
The doctor, a good catholic like all the citizens of the town, looked suspiciously around for the presence of Satan and only very hesitantly touched the outer-wordly apparition. He felt wood, rubber and iron – hence the physical existence of the visitation could no longer be denied. He asked for an explanation, and the lady told him a story plainly out of a Jules Verne novel, of which the apothecary, it must be admitted, had read a few in his youth.
This car, the lady told him, has not been mankind’s first attempt at constructing an automobile, but earlier designs failed at the dearth of a reliable engine, until from the 1870s on, Nikolaus Otto and Gottfried Daimler succeeded in building reliable four-stroke-engines, which are, to this day, called Ottomotoren – Otto engines.
Her name was Cäcilie Bertha Benz, she said, and was the wife and unofficial (because illegal) business partner of the inventor and engineer Karl Benz. Their company, Benz & Cie., had constructed and patented the present Benz-Patent-Motorwagen, a horseless carriage with a water-cooled petroleum engine. It had been awarded the German patent number 37435, for which her husband had applied on 29 January 1886. Unfortunately, the fancy invention was ignored by the public, and although Karl improved Model I with II and III, disinterest persisted.
The novelty in Karl Benz’ concept was that, from the beginning, the car was designed to become, one day, the world’s first “production” car, of which great numbers could be built. Many tinkerers worked on cars, but hardly anybody except Benz in such a systematic way. Horseless carriages could be, and would be built, but would they work in everyday use? They were extremely fault-prone, hence every driver had to double as mechanic, there were no roads, where could one get gasoline except in a pharmacy – which stocked only small amounts of it anyway?
Thus, on this morning of August 5, 1888, Bertha set out to show the world what her husband’s work could do. She was a practical woman and knew that people tend to covet something only when they are aware of its existence. It was a question of marketing, she realized. The car had previously never been driven more than a few hundred yards around the workshop and few people had seen it. She did not tell her husband or anyone else, did not inform authorities (why anyway – there were no such things as driving licences), but took her sons Richard and Eugen, thirteen and fifteen years old, and set out to visit her mother, who lived in Pforzheim, starting from her own house in Mannheim.
As it was to be expected, the enterprise turned out no mean feat. She had to clean a blocked fuel line with her hair pin and use her garter as insulation for the overheating engine. The 4,5 litres of petroleum in the carburator ran out quickly, forcing her to the aforementioned fuel stop at Wiesloch, where the apothecary thus became owner and attendant of the world’s first service station. A broken chain necessitated another stop, to have it fixed by a local blacksmith. When the brakes – made of wood – began to evidence abnormal tear and wear, she visited a nearby cobbler and had leather pads fixed on it, thereby inventing the world’s first pair of brake pads. The engine was cooled by an evaporative cooling system, which was responsible for further filling-up stops.
But she persisted. She reached Pforzheim after dusk and reported home by telegram. A few days later, she made the journey back successfully. The rest, as they say, is history.
The trip was an instant success. First local, then national and finally the international press picked up the story. It became the key event in the practical invention of the automobile as means of private transport.
(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)