2022 NIHF Inductee Carl Benz: Inventor of the First Modern Automobile
2022 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Carl Benz’s 1885 invention of a three-wheel Motorwagen makes him one of the major figures responsible for helping transform the automobile into the dominant form of transportation it represents today.
Benz was born in Karlsruhe, Baden (modern-day Germany) on Nov. 25, 1844. His family experienced great hardship, and when Benz was just 2, his father died in a railway accident. Despite the precarious financial position they found themselves in, his mother, Josephine, was determined to give him a good education. To this end, Benz attended the local grammar school in Karlsruhe, studied at the science-oriented Lyzeum at the age of 9 and went on to enroll in a poly-technical university.
Though he originally was interested in training to become a locksmith, Benz eventually decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and study locomotive engineering. At 15, he successfully passed his entrance exams and began studying mechanical engineering at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, where he graduated four years later.
While riding his bicycle to and from the university, he began dreaming of a vehicle that was 100% self-powered.
The Benz Patent Motorwagen
After completing his education, Benz bounced between several different companies, from one that built bridges to one that specialized in iron construction. Then in 1883, he teamed up with Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eblinger to start a company that produced industrial machines. They named it Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik, or Benz & Cie for short.
Starting his own company gave Benz the autonomy to pursue the development of the self-powered vehicle he had dreamed about as a student. Inspired by his love of bicycles, he created a special water- cooled four-stroke gas engine, which was located between the rear wheels and transmitted power using two roller chains connected to the rear axle. With a chassis composed of bent and welded steel tube, three wire-spoke wheels and two-passenger seating, this gas-powered vehicle topped out at a maximum speed of around 16 kph (10 mph). Benz called this new vehicle the Benz Patent Motorwagen.
In an article published by Car and Driver, Don Sherman explains that what made the Motorwagen so special was not the creation of never-before-seen technologies and designs, but rather the combination of three essential elements that enabled the reproduction and further advancement of automobiles as a practical means of transportation: “an engine with adequate power, a lightweight chassis, and petroleum-based fuel.”
Bertha’s Famous Road Trip and the Birth of Mercedes-Benz
Due to how difficult the vehicle was to control and the sheer novelty of the invention, the reception was understandably mixed when it was first driven in public in Mannheim, Germany, on July 3, 1886. At the time, not only was gasoline only available at a pharmacy and used as a household cleaning product, but the roads were bumpy, uneven and simply not suited for motorized vehicles.
Real-world testing of the Motorwagen led to the development of two iterations, Model II and Model III, the latter of which used more durable wooden wheels. While Benz sold his first vehicle in 1888, due to consumer skepticism, he struggled to find a market for his invention.
That same year, Benz’s wife, Bertha, decided to take matters into her own hands. Without her husband knowing, she recruited her sons to take a 60-mile trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim in the Motorwagen. The three began their journey at 5 a.m. and had to make use of roads intended for wagons.
According to the Automotive Hall of Fame, Bertha made several repairs to the Motorwagen during her journey, using a hair pin to unclog a blocked fuel pipe and garter to fix the ignition. After the car’s wooden brakes failed, she even had to ask local shoemakers to replace the leather brake shoe linings throughout the journey.
Incredibly, the three safely made it to their destination later that night. News of the road trip quickly spread and provided Benz with the positive public relations boost he needed. The following year, he displayed the Motorwagen to the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris to great fanfare.
In 1906, Benz started the Carl Benz Söhnefirm, which began manufacturing vehicles in 1908. While the company only sold around 350 vehicles during the first quarter of the 20th century, continuous improvements to their vehicles helped push the idea of motorized vehicles forward and proved revolutionary.
Then in the early 1920s, Benz merged with the Stuttgart-based company Daimler, manufacturer of the Mercedes engine, to create the Mercedes-Benz company we know today.
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