So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…
Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!
Think about this name for a second:
It is a name synonymous with style and quality – and so it should be. Karl Benz was the German counterpart to Ford. It was his genius that made the first internal combustion engine, which in turn lead to the development of the modern automobile. However, his star glowed bright thanks to the flame being fanned by the support of his wife, Bertha
Benz was born Karl Friedrich Michael Vaillant in 1844, in what is now part of modern Germany. His mother married his father, a locomotive driver, after he was born, and he was named after his father after the poor man died tragically when Karl was just two. Even with such unfortunate start to his life, he was a brilliant student of the sciences. At one point, like the great Richard Feynman, he was interested in locksmithing; however, his studies led him into locomotive engineering and eventually he gained a degree in mechanical engineering.
Even at this early stage in his career, he was focused on the concept of the horseless carriage. It has been theorized that Benz got the idea from riding his bike and from his bicycle business; I can see that, for I might fantasize about other forms of transport while riding on a wet, cold, dark day. However, I think that diminishes the accomplishments of Benz, because it infers he was trying to escape from drudgery rather than inventing the horseless carriage for its own sake. A mind that loved the complexity of locks would want to solve the puzzle of the horseless carriage.
For it was a puzzle! Benz’s first automobile did have wire wheels like a bicycle, but it was its motor that made it unique. Rather than slapping a steam-engine on a carriage or wagon, Benz had designed and developed his own four-stroke engine that ran on gasoline. At that time, gasoline was not a fuel, but a cleaning product you bought at a store. However, it was gearless and something of a bugger to steer.
At this point, I would like to introduce the peerless Bertha Benz – née Ringer –was born in Germany in 1849. She helped fund her then-fiancé’s business and his efforts into making his inventions by donating her dowry. Bertha was not a silent partner, for it was she who suggested the use of gears – to assist in controlling the vehicle. After they were married and had five children, she had a test-drive of her husband’s latest vehicle (without Karl’s knowledge) and went on to make sensible suggestions on improving the invention. She was the actual inventor of the brake lining. Bertha was also a marketing whiz, because she took her own sons along for the trip while she was making the test drive, and made sure the trip was well-publicized. It increased public interest in the invention enormously.Now, in Victorian times, a woman was still meant to be a helpmeet to her husband, but that usually meant she was confined to her home as wife, mother and hostess. I think is says a lot about both Karl and Bertha that he obviously appreciated her intelligence and independence, and had no qualms about letting society see that their marriage was a union of equals rather than a Victorian patriarchy.
Benz went on to design trucks and buses as well. He invented and patented the spark plug, the radiator, the gear-shift and clutch, the carburetor, an ignition system and a speed regulation system. Not everything he invented worked, but what did work was often adapted by other car manufacturers into their designs.
He remained married to Bertha all his life, and pre-deceased her in 1929. Bertha remained in their final marital home until her own death in 1944. But their name lives on in both their descendants and the car …
*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!