Wheel logo

The Power of 2

A story of teamwork, 19th Century style

The Power of 2

Early one sunny Sunday morning in the city of Mannheim, Germany, something extraordinary happened. Mrs Bertha Benz set out on the 65-mile journey to visit her parents in neighbouring Pforzheim, with her two teenage sons in tow. Nowadays, this may not seem especially remarkable - millions of us make similar trips every weekend to see loved ones. What made Bertha’s journey so remarkable was that the year was 1888, the journey took over 12 hours, and was the world’s first long-distance trip by car.

But first, let’s go back a couple of years…

In 1886, Bertha’s husband, Karl, was granted the patent for his Benz Patent Motorwagen – the first automobile propelled by an internal combustion engine. Taking inspiration from his love of bicycles, the design featured a tubular steel frame and three, steel-spoked wheels (a departure from wooden wheels, which were de jour for carriages at the time). But the wood-panelled finish, elevated driving position and large, rear wheels were evocative of a horse-drawn carriage. It could be said that the resultant vehicle was a blend of the best parts of these two distinct vehicles.

Karl unveiled his prototype to the public in July 1886, and although it was met with much excitement and curiousity, no one really believed that this machine was a match for the horse and cart. In order to run, the car would need smooth, level roads (featuring only two gears, the only way to get up a hill was to get out and push), and regular petrol stops to fill up the tiny tank. Sadly for Karl, smooth roads and petrol stations didn’t exist in 1888. While the average horse-drawn carriage could cover up to 50 miles a day on rough country lanes, Karl’s ‘horseless carriage’ would barely make it out of Mannheim. As such, Karl’s order book for the Motorwagen remained stubbornly empty for the next two years.

Cue Mrs Benz and her extraordinary journey. Unbeknownst to Karl, Bertha left early that Sunday morning to make the case for her husband’s design. There were no roadmaps, no signs, no tarmacked surface to drive along. The engine regularly overheated, requiring frequent stops to cool it off with ditchwater. The tank had to be filled with a petroleum-based solvent, purchased at pharmacies along the route. Every ascent required a push (that explains why she took her two boys along), and every descent (with just a hand-operated brake) was a terrifying, white-knuckle ride. By the time the light was fading and Bertha and her boys reach Pforzheim, news was already beginning to spread of this remarkable woman and her motor car. By the end of the century, The Benz company was the largest automobile company in the world, employing over 400 people and producing 570 vehicles a year.

I love this story for many reasons. I love the fact that Bertha used a hatpin to clear a clogged fuel line, and used her garter to insulate an exposed ignition wire. The fact that in the process of proving the viability of her husband’s design, she also invented the brake pad, and the concept of live marketing. And she did all of this a full thirty years before women in Germany were even permitted to vote.

But what I love most about it is the teamwork. Karl was clearly an extraordinary engineer, with the spark plug, the carburetor, the clutch, the gearshift and numerous other inventions to his name. But it was Bertha who had the vision, who saw the true potential in his designs. Karl Benz may have invented the car; but it was Bertha who invented the need for the car. For me, that’s the definition of collaboration. People coming together, facing the same challenge, the same problem, and utilising their contrasting skills to solve it. It is unlikely that Bertha would have invented the Motorwagen. It is unlikely that Karl would have conceived of the extraordinary journey. It took the two of them, in partnership, to make the automobile viable, and in the process, change the world as we know it.

Stuart Guthrie-Cadge
Stuart Guthrie-Cadge
Read next: 'Stop! We're Going to Crash'
Stuart Guthrie-Cadge

See all posts by Stuart Guthrie-Cadge