Inventor of the First Automobile - Karl Friedrich Benz (1844-1929)
Steam was the first power for a vehicle probably by Ferdinand Verbiest who in 1672 developed a toy model for the Chinese Emperor. Then came an attempt in 1806for an internal combustion engine fueled by a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen but this clumsy engine failed all attempts. In 1881 Gustave Trouve developed a working vehicle powered by electricity-it was so heavy it barely moved.
The first practical automobile was granted a patent January 29, 1886. It was called the Motorwagen and its creator was Karl Benz. It was constructed of steel tubing with wood-work panels, steel spoked bicycle type wheels, fully elliptic springs in back an a toothed rack that pivoted the unsprung front wheel developed by Karl Benz.
It was powered by a 954cc single cylinder four-stroke naphtha (gasoline) engine of his own design that produced 2/3 hp at 250rpm and weighed only about 220 pounds, using a pushrod-operated poppet exhaust valve. A sleeve valve regulated an evaporative carburetor to regulate power and speed which was in reality the first accelerator. The ignition used sparks from a battery instead of a lighted wick of previous engine attempts; it had points and a spark plug, a clutch, a gear shift utilizing a belt to a variable drum on the drive shaft powering two roller chains to the axle for the rear wheels. All of these were inventions of Karl Benz.
Benz was born in Germany "on the wrong side of the blanket" and named Karl Friedrich Michael Vaillant on November 16, 1844. His mother later married Johann George Benz, a locomotive engineer, and only after the death of his step father did he utilize the family name of Benz. His character was strengthened and hardened by the ridicule he suffered at school and encouraged him to be a prodigious student. At age nine he was admitted to a school specializing in science and next he attended Poly-Technical University. At the age of fifteen he passed the entry exam for the University of Karlsruhe from which he graduated at nineteen.
After his formal education he had seven years of professional training at various companies and then as a designer for factory, bridge and iron construction companies. At age twenty-seven he stated, with a partner, his own mechanical workshop; the business was a disaster and was only saved when he met his future wife and used her dowry to save the company. The future wife, Bertha, had five children with him and was the inspirational life partner that brought out his real genius. Benz developed a reliable two stroke engine and patented the speed regulation system, the ignition using sparks with battery, the spark plug, the carburetor, the clutch, the gear shift, and the water radiator. He started and built the first automobile, the Motorwagen, in 1885 and it was patented on January 29, 1886 as DRP-37435 "an automobile fueled by gas".
The vehicle was not immediately a financial success and Benz continued to manufacture gas engines for others to maintain the company and provide revenue to maintain his inventive genius. On August 5, 1888, Bertha supposedly without the knowledge of her husband, created a marketing idea. She along with two of her sons took the Motorwagen on a 65 mile trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim to visit her mother. She obtained fuel from several pharmacies, and with the help of her sons overcame various technical and mechanical problems. Upon arriving at her destination she arranged for news reporters to be there and the resulting publicity created a demand for a vehicle that even a woman could handle. Sales picked up and about twenty five Motorwagens were sold between 1888-1893.
Benz & Cie was formed and prospered and in 1899 there was 572 units produced. Karl Benz designed the new Velo and Victoria models and more than 1,200 of these were produced. In 1895, Benz designed the first truck in history and some of the units modified to become the first buses. In 1896, Benz was granted a patent for the first horizontally-opposed piston engine commonly called boxed engines. This design continues to used to the present day. In 1903 he developed a vertical twin engine that achieved a top speed of 37 mpg, and in 1909 he built the Blitzen Benz, bird-beaker vehicle, with a 21.5 liter 200 horsepower engine which won and held the land speed record ten years with a record of 125.94 mph.
In 1906 Karl Benz in addition to remaining director of Benz & Cie concurrently along with his son Eugen formed another company C. Benz & Sohne, producing automobiles and petrol engines. In 1912 he retired except to remain director of Benz & Cie until its 1926 merger with Daimler AMG as the Damlier-Benz company, calling all of their automobiles Mercedes Benz; but that is a story for another day.
Karl Friedrich Michael Vaillant Benz died on April 4, 1929 at Ladenburg, Germany. His loving wife and life partner Bertha Ringer Benz, survived him by fifteen years dying on May 5, 1944.
Come see Automobile Driving Museum's replica of the 1886 Benz.
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