Why you should care
Behind every successful (straight) man is some goddess of a woman you’ve never heard of.
Meet the badass women that history forgot — but we didn’t. Check out the rest of this OZY series here.
It was still dark when Bertha sneaked out of the house with her two sons. She had to be very quiet to avoid waking her husband. If he had any idea what she was up to, he’d put a stop to it immediately. So the furtive trio silently pushed the world’s first automotive vehicle out of her husband’s workshop and down the road — before juicing it up and taking off.
Just 11 years earlier, in 1877, it seemed this day would never come, especially after a bailiff had come to their family home and taken everything. All the machines were seized and sold at an auction to cover claims made by a business partner. Carl Benz was left with a piece of land, his bare hands and his wife’s support, without which he might never have recovered … or invented the motorcar.
Bertha never gave up on her husband, and biographer Barbara Leisner is convinced that Bertha’s moral and financial support were essential to cars hitting the road. “Without her backing him up, Carl would have not been able to work on his inventions unsuccessfully for such a long time and come up with a working automotive [vehicle later],” Leisner says. Yet he’s the one who’s remembered as a genius, while his wife has become a historical footnote.
Bertha took a chance and decided to go to visit her mother by car — without asking Carl for permission.
Jutta Benz, great-granddaughter of Bertha Benz
Bertha was born in May 1849 to the Ringer family in Pforzheim, Germany, where she received an extensive education, by 19th-century standards. The daughter of a successful carpenter, she was more interested in natural sciences than sewing and housekeeping, which may have contributed to her falling in love with Carl. They met during a carriage excursion to the Maulbronn Monastery in 1869 and fell “head over heels” for each other, according to Leisner.
Carl, 24, was a skilled mechanic and a visionary, openly sharing his ideas with his future wife. And despite her limited knowledge of the science, she was “one of the few [who] really understood his vision of a ‘carriage without horses’” and its life-altering potential, says Angela Elis, who wrote a novel based on Bertha’s life. Bertha believed in Carl and his inventions enough, in fact, to ask her parents to pay her dowry and inheritance in advance so they could be invested in her fiance’s workshop. They agreed and gave her about 4,244 gulden — which would’ve been enough to buy a mansion and still have a bit left over, Elis writes.
But it was Bertha’s fearlessness that contributed the most to Carl and the world. According to great-granddaughter Jutta Benz, the family’s fondest memory of Bertha is her historic drive from Mannheim to Pforzheim in 1888. Carl was a perfectionist and didn’t believe his car could yet cover long distances, but “Bertha took a chance and decided to go to visit her mother by car — without asking Carl for permission.”
So without his consent, instructions or a clear plan, Bertha set out with Eugen, 15, and Richard, 13, on August 5, 1888, to visit her family about 65 miles away. That may seem like nothing in today’s terms, but it was a lot back then, thanks to rough and cluttered roads. The trio took turns steering the vehicle, pushing it up hills and keeping it running. They had to refill the cooling water frequently and find fuel — called “ligroin” in those days and sold only in pharmacies — along the way.
But Bertha was not put off by the obstacles, drawing on her creativity to solve them. She invented brake lining by instructing a cobbler along the way to cover the brake pads with leather so they would last longer, used a hatpin to unblock a fuel pipe and isolated a worn-through ignition cable with a garter. She beat the odds and arrived in Pforzheim after dusk — only to find that her mother had left on vacation.
In an interview from 1956, Eugen Benz recalled that the trio informed Carl about their successful trip via telegram: “Father was not angry with us,” he assured the interviewer. “But we had to send the car’s chains back to Mannheim as fast as possible,” he added, because Carl needed them for another car going on exhibit in Munich. So there was no time to celebrate their triumph, even though Bertha had just completed the first long-distance drive in history and proved the functionality of her husband’s “Benz Patent-Motorwagen Nummer 1.” Within six years, Carl would construct another 25 cars that had between 1 and 3 horsepower.
While Carl dedicated himself to the rapidly expanding company, Bertha tended to family life. “It is often said that my great-grandmother was an emancipated woman,” says Jutta Benz. But she wasn’t emancipated in the same way as a modern-day woman, she adds, noting that Bertha was instead “a resolute woman who knew exactly what she wanted.”
And by sneaking out that fateful night, she showed her husband — and the world — just how much they had accomplished.