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Column: Thank Mr. and Mrs. Benz for 135 years of the motor vehicle
Rudi Kiefer

Serious automobile enthusiasts have a reason to celebrate a 135-year anniversary this coming week. On January 29, 1886, Carl Benz of Karlsruhe, Germany obtained the patent for the world’s first “Fahrzeug mit Gasmotorenbetrieb”, the gas-powered vehicle. His creation, the “Motorwagen” or “Motor Wagon” was really what today’s enthusiasts call a trike. With two wheels at the rear, one in front and a hand-cranked mechanism for steering, Carl’s patented product resembled its 21st century derivatives only vaguely. But subsequent improvements created the modern car. It has made the good, the bad, and the ugly impact on our physical environment. Many of the most important automotive innovations weren’t the work of male engineers. 

Carl’s resourceful spouse, Bertha Benz, was an automotive pioneer and inventor just like her husband. It was she who conducted extensive test drives on the Motorwagen, presumably without a driver’s license. 

The distance from the Benz shop in Mannheim to the small town of Pforzheim is a 62-mile route today, covered in as many minutes on the speed-crazed E-5 and E-8 superhighways. In 1888, Bertha snuck the car out of its shop and made the trip in much more arduous fashion, in the absence of paved roads, with the exception of some cobblestone stretches. Hoof nails from horses, the bane of later motorists, weren’t a worry because Bertha’s early-model Benz had steel-lined wheels. Near Heidelberg, the flat Rhine Valley borders on the Kraichgau. That’s a lovely part of southern Germany, resembling the woods, fields and orchards of Habersham County. Bertha stopped in Wiesloch to top up the tank. No gas stations existed, so she bought fuel at a pharmacy. It made her a celebrity there. 

Destination Pforzheim’s landscape looks similar to Cornelia. The hilly terrain became a headache. Bertha’s 2-gear Benz wasn’t yet equipped to negotiate the steeper stretches and needed human and equine help. “We’re adding a hill-climbing third gear,” Bertha decided. Going downhill on the other side revealed the shortcomings of early brake systems. Between white-knuckled descents, Bertha made notes, thought creatively, and ended up inventing modern brake pads. 

Georgia motorists now zoom up and down the slopes of I-985 in comfortable automobiles, and Kevlar pads stop us safely as needed. That long-established car brand uses the more or less random woman’s name “Mercedes.” But proper credit to its daredevil test pilot and pioneer-inventor would name it Bertha-Benz.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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