Bertha Benz, the wife of inventor Karl Benz and the first person to drive an automobile over a long distance, dies on this day in 1944, in Ladenburg, Germany.
Born Bertha Ringer, she married Karl Benz around 1870. Karl Benz received a patent for his horseless carriage, called the Motorwagen, in January 1886. The wooden vehicle had two wheels in the back, one in the front, and a handle-like contraption as a steering wheel. Powered by a single-cylinder, 2.5-horsepower engine, it could reach speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. Benz was having trouble selling the Motorwagen, however: Early press reports were not altogether positive, and customers were reluctant to take a chance on a vehicle that had so far only been tested over short distances.
In early August 1888, Bertha and her two teenage sons, Richard and Eugen, hatched a plan to take the car on a surprise visit to her mother in Pforzheim, Germany. Knowing that Karl would never allow it, they left early in the morning, while he was still sleeping. The trio drove from their home in Mannheim to Pforzheim and back, a total distance of 106 kilometers (65 miles). Though big streets in the cities were often paved, there were no real roads outside urban areas yet, and Bertha had to drive along railway lines in order to find her way. To refuel the car, she bought Ligroin, a detergent then used as fuel, at local pharmacies. When the car’s fuel line clogged, she unclogged it using one of her hairpins. She also used the garter on her stocking to fix a broken ignition.