January 29 marks what is widely considered the birth of the modern automotive industry. On this day 127 years ago, German inventor Karl Freidrich Benz patented a gasoline-powered vehicle of his own design, deemed the first viable automobile.
Benz had received his first engine patent in 1879, followed by patents for the speed regulation system, the ignition using white power sparks with battery, the carburetor, the clutch, the gear shift, the water radiator and, our personal favorite of course, the spark plug. He’s best known, however, for the patent he received in January of 1888 for his first automobile, the Benz Patent Motorwagen. Powered by a single-cylinder, four-stroke motor good for 2/3rds of a horsepower, the Motorwagen went through three design versions before becoming commercially viable, begging sales in the summer of 1888.
But as they say, behind every successful man is a determined and supportive woman. And in Benz’s case, that woman was as savvy am entrepreneur as ever. Wife Bertha Benz first came to Karl’s financial rescue when, as his fiancé, she used her dowry to buy out Karl’s partner, August Ritter, in the Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop in Mannheim. She continued to finance his inventive pursuits, unemployed years and meagerly paying side jobs while he worked toward not just automotive success, but industry icon status. And when her husband slacked in promoting his historic Motorwagen, Bertha took the wheel – literally.
In an 1888 publicity stunt, Bertha climbed into the Motorwagen and set out on what would become the world’s first long-distance trip in a car, taking copious notes, solving amyriad of mechanical troubles and laying the groundwork for design improvements along the way.
“In those days when our little boat of life threatened to capsize, only one person stood steadfastly by me, my wife,” Karl later wrote of his beautiful and driven bride whose history-making jaunt helped make the couple’s company, Benz & Cie., the largest automobile company in the world during the latter part of the 19th century. “She bravely set new sails of hope.”
The rest, as they say, is history.