The Woman behind the Automotive Revolution
Bertha Benz was a strong-willed, energetic woman who played a subordinate role in the patriarchal society of the German Empire in appearances only. She encouraged her often self-doubting, obstinate and sullen husband Carl Benz in her unique way, pushing him to continue time and time again after setbacks, and stood by him for nearly 60 years. She was a woman who shared her husband’s far-reaching technical visions completely and made many sacrifices as a result. Without Bertha Benz, there would never have been a Benz company in Mannheim.
Cäcilie Bertha was born on May 3, 1849 in Pforzheim, the daughter of Auguste Friederike and Karl Friedrich Ringer. She was the third of nine children in the Ringer family. Her father had saved some money as a carpenter and master builder in Pforzheim, which enabled his children, including his daughters, to get a good education. Bertha went to boarding school in Pforzheim for ten years.
In the summer of 1870, she met the engineer Carl Benz. The two fell in love and soon began making big plans. They both agreed that they did not want to stay in Pforzheim.
So Carl Benz set up shop in Mannheim. The wedding was to take place and Bertha would join him as soon as he could make a living there. He set up a mechanical workshop in T6/11 – as the distinctive Mannheim address format stated – with August Ritter but the two men were soon at odds with one another. When Bertha realized the problems that her fiancé was facing during one of his visits to Pforzheim, she persuaded her father to pay him her dowry before the wedding and an advance on her inheritance so that Carl could buy out his companion.
27-year old Carl Benz and 23-year old Bertha Ringer married in Pforzheim on July 20, 1872. They first rented a home in Mannheim but Carl soon built them their own apartment with two rooms and a kitchen onto the workshop. When their first son Eugen was born on May 1, 1873, the small family was overjoyed – but also deep in debt.
The next 15 years were dominated by big financial problems, as Carl needed more money for his workshop equipment and his inventions than the small business could provide. In the meantime, the family was expanding: their second son, Richard, was born on October 21, 1874. Three years later, on July 25, 1877, the family was forced to sell all the workshop equipment, shortly before Bertha brought their daughter Klara into the world just a week later. Despite the great worries, Bertha continued to stand by her husband, often quite literally, in the workshop. Here, the couple held many discussions and Bertha acquired technical knowledge. Witnesses of the time later reported that she knew the engines and the cars nearly as well as her husband.
In 1878, Carl Benz was fiddling with his latest invention: a machine for commercial use. But there were problems with the new engine. On New Year’s Eve, when the children were in bed, Carl and Bertha started the two-stroke engine together – and it started running, a noise that was far lovelier than any bells ringing in the New Year.
In the spring of 1882, shortly after the birth of their fourth child, Thilde, they were in financial difficulties once again. This led to the founding of the Mannheim petrol engine factory together with solvent partners. After a short while, Carl Benz fell out with these partners, who did not share his visions of an automobile. Disappointed, he left the company after three months in January 1883 – once again, the family had nothing.
In 1883, Carl Benz set up “Benz & Cie. Rheinische Gasmotorenfabrik Mannheim” with new partners and set about developing his automobile. Bertha regularly sat alongside Carl during the first test drives in 1886, not just to get out and push when it stopped again: she was also his lucky charm. Developing the new car took lots of time and cost lots of money; Carl Benz wondered if the car was suitable for long trips at all. Once again, Bertha showed her husband that she had unshakeable faith in him and in his abilities.
In August 1888, she secretly took her sons out in the car, defying the official driving ban without further ado, drove the 180 kilometers to Pforzheim and back – and returned with suggested improvements for further development.
The success that they desired gradually began to arrive. Following the company’s move to Waldhofstraße, the family got more space – living above the offices. In March 1890, the youngest of the family, Ellen, was born. Test drives with newly-developed cars were family excursions on Sundays, with not only the sons but often the daughters at the wheel.
In 1903, Carl Benz left his company in Mannheim; the family relocated to Ladenburg. Together with his sons, Carl Benz set up the “Carl Benz Söhne” factory in 1906, which later produced its own automobiles from 1908 onwards. In the meantime, Bertha was negotiating with architects regarding the conversion of the villa that she acquired in 1905.
In the 1920s, the automobile inventor was awarded many distinctions, always with his wife at his side.
Carl Benz died on April 4, 1929. Bertha then received a lot of attention. She was especially delighted when she was named honorary senator of the Technische Universität Karlsruhe to mark her 95th birthday. Two days later, on May 5, 1944, Bertha Benz, whose important role in the automotive revolution continues to be underrated to the present day, died.