On the morning of August 12, 1888, Bertha Benz, wife of German engine designer Karl Benz, woke early. She got her two teenage sons Eugen and Richard out of bed, and the three of them left their house in Mannheim, pushed her husband's newly-constructed Patent Motorwagen a little way down the road so as not to wake Karl, and drove the vehicle to Pforzheim, 106 kilometres away. Bertha Benz was the first person to drive a car any further than the perfunctory and carefully monitored trips undertaken during workshop trials. Although Mrs Benz claimed that she undertook the journey because she wanted to visit her mother, she did have another motive. She aimed to prove to her husband, who had kept the motor car under wraps that it was marketable and would be financially viable once the public (who were mostly scared witless) had seen it.
Bertha, who was 39 when she made the historic trip, was well-acquainted with the Motorwagen, which was little more, as its name suggests, than a motorised carriage, with two wheels at the back and one at the front, and an open cabin. She planned her route, which she did not know as well as she knew the car, so that they would drive through towns which had pharmacies. At the time, petroleum was only available as Ligroin, a form of petroleum ether sold as a cleaning fluid, in small bottles. Along the way, Benz employed the services of a blacksmith to mend a broken chain and a cobbler to replace the leather brake linings. She unblocked a fuel pipe with a hairpin and used one of her garters to insulate a wire. Once she had reached Pforzheim, more than twelve hours later, she informed her husband by telegram of her party's safe arrival.
The publicity which the alarming sight of the car engendered was exactly the reaction Bertha wanted. She also recommended that Mr Benz add another gear to the engine because she had encountered difficulties driving up hills.
Last year the Bertha Benz Memorial Route was officially approved as a route of the industrial heritage of mankind.
Photograph: Bertha Benz around 1870.