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Karl Benz

(aka Carl Benz) inventor of the first "horseless carriage" to be driven by an internal combustion engine

Karl Benz

Early Life

Karl Friedrich Benz was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, on November 25, 1844, the son of Johann George Benz, a railroad engineer, and Josephine Vaillant. His father died when he was two, leaving his mother with little income.

Despite living in near poverty, Karl received the best education available. He attended the local grammar school until the age of nine, when he entered a more science-oriented school. At the age of fifteen he passed the entrance exam to study mechanical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe, from which he graduated in 1864.

After completing his education, Benz spent two years working for a mechanical engineering company in Karlsruhe. He then moved to Mannheim, where he worked as a draftsman and designer in a scales factory. Next came a stint in Pforzheim with a bridge building company, and another in Vienna with an iron construction company.

First Factory

In 1871, Benz joined with August Ritter to form the Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop (later renamed Factory for Machines for Sheet-metal Working) in Mannheim. Ritter proved to be an unreliable partner, however, and the factory was in danger of going bankrupt when Benz's fiancée, Bertha Ringer, used her dowry to buy Ritter's share of the business.

Karl Benz and Bertha Ringer were married on July 20, 1872, and ultimately had five children -- Eugen (1873), Richard (1874), Clara (1877), Thilde (1882), and Ellen (1890).

Bertha proved to be very capable of taking care of the business, leaving Karl free to focus on developing new types of engines and patenting a variety of key engine components. These patents, among them the patent for the first internal combustion engine (granted in 1879), soon led to substantial revenue increases and helped to subsidize the workshop business. During this time he also patented the speed regulation system, an electrical ignition system using sparks generated by a battery, the spark plug, the carburetor, the clutch, the gear shift, and the water radiator.

Second Factory

Despite Karl's mechanical successes, he and Bertha's business was still financially shaky, so in 1882 they teamed with new investors to form the Gasmotoren Fabrik Manneim (Mannheim Gas Engine Manufacturing Company). The investors did not want Karl spending company resources on inventions, however, so he withdrew from the company after less than a year.

Third Factory and First "Horseless Carriage"

In 1883, Benz teamed with two new investors to form Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik (Rhine River Gas Motor Factory). Although the factory's principal business was the building of stationary gasoline engines, Benz's new partners supported his efforts to design and build a "horseless carriage," so long as those efforts did not take resources away from the primary product.

Benz was not, however, content with simply putting an engine on a carriage, something that was already being done by others (with steam engines). Benz's creation featured three wire wheels (unlike carriages' wooden ones) with a four-stroke internal combustion engine of his own design between the rear wheels, with a very advanced coil ignition and evaporative cooling rather than a radiator. Power was transmitted by means of two roller chains to the rear axle. Karl Benz finished his creation in 1885 and named it the Benz Patent Motorwagen. He was granted a patent for the Motorwagen on January 29, 1886, and that date is now generally considered the "birth date" of the automobile.

replica of the first Benz Patent Motorwagen
replica of the first Benz Patent Motorwagen

The first Motorwagen proved difficult to control, leading to a collision with a wall during a public demonstration. The first successful tests on public roads were carried out in the early summer of 1886. The next year Benz created the Motorwagen Model 2, which had several modifications, and in 1887 the definitive Model 3 with wooden wheels was introduced. It was this last model that became the world's first production automobile, thanks to a publicity stunt carried out by Bertha.

On the morning of August 5, 1888, Bertha Benz decided to drive a Motorwagen from Mannheim to Pforzheim (a distance of 66 miles), ostensibly to visit her mother. Despite encountering a few mechanical difficulties along the way (all of which she fixed herself), and the lack of adequate roads between the two towns, she and the couple's two sons arrived in Pforzheim safely, having garnered a wealth of publicity along the way. Bertha's adventure spurred international interest in the Motorwagen, and the first sale was recorded after it was formally introduced at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris.

Later Career

By 1890 Benz & Company was the second-largest engine factory in Germany. The first four-wheeled Benz was introduced that year, but did not go into mass production until 1894.

the first four-wheeled Benz
the first four-wheeled Benz

Benz continued to make improvements to his automobile until 1903, when disagreements with corporate directors led him to retire from design supervision; he stayed on as a member of the board of directors, however. In 1906, he and his sons formed C. Benz Söhne, a family-held company based in Ladenburg that produced its own line of automobiles.

Karl Benz retired as a shareholder of C. Benz Söhne in 1912, but remained on the board of directors of Benz & Company (which merged with Daimler in 1926 to form the Mercedes-Benz nameplate) until his death, which came at his home in Ladenburg on April 4, 1929.

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This page was last updated on January 29, 2019.