January 29 is a day like any other. But 130 years ago on January 29, one person and one patent certificate launched a new chapter in the history of transportation systems. Today, we will take a look back at the story of the Benz Patent-Motor Car, the world’s first automobile, and its creator Carl Benz.
The Benz Patent-Motor Car
Who Was Carl Benz?
Carl Benz was born into a family of craftspeople in Germany. His father was a train operator. As a child, he was surrounded by mechanical engines and the roars of trains. When he was fifteen, he passed a mechanical engineering examination and was known as a prodigious student among locals. His passion was in innovation. He worked incessantly to invent a means of transportation that was not limited by tracks. He partnered with others several times to build machine plants, but did not succeed in creating the vehicle that existed in his imagination. He even lingered on the brink of bankruptcy. But when he decided to change career paths and focus on the power that moved a vehicle, the luckless inventor began his journey into the annals of history.
The Invention of the Benz Patent-Motor Car, the First Automobile
As we know, before the invention of the modern car, people generally traveled in animal-drawn or steam-powered vehicles, which allowed them to rest their feet and enjoy a more comfortable journey. But the time and effort spent on horse-drawn carriages and the poor thermal efficiency of steam engines left ambitious and innovative inventors dissatisfied.
In 1876, Nicolaus Otto, another German, built the first four-stroke gasoline engine, which had better thermal efficiency and power than previous engines. A gasoline engine installed in a vehicle gave rise to the familiar car.
Nicolaus Otto and the Four-Stroke Internal Combustion Engine
In 1885, Carl Benz installed a single cylinder four-stroke gasoline engine with a water cooling system into a three-wheel vehicle. On January 29, 1886, he applied for a patent from Mannheim’s patent office in what was then the German Empire (with patent number DRP 37435). This marked the beginning of the car era, and the day of the patent application for the Benz Patent-Motor Car is considered the day the car was invented.
Blueprint of the Benz Patent-Motor Car
How the Benz Patent-Motor Car Worked
The Benz Patent-Motor Car looks like a simple three-wheeled car, but it works very similarly to a modern car. So how does it work?
First, the battery circuit controlling the spark plug’s ignition of the car is closed. The red flywheel at the back of the car rotates, which starts the four-stroke cycle of intake, compression, power, and exhaust. The cycle continues with the force of inertia, creating a stream of power that propels the vehicle forward. A lever to the left of the driver’s seat starts and stops the cycle. All the driver has to do is control the car’s speed and direction and keep the car in good repair. Even though operating the Benz Patent-Motor Car was not as easy as turning on the ignition and controlling the gas pedal as in today’s cars, its inner workings were the first step in the evolution toward the design of the modern car.
At this point, the Benz Patent-Motor Car, with its convenient operating system and patent certificate, should have been well received. But people did not approve of the motorcar that gave off loud noises and “foul” gases and whose inner workings they could not see. Some thought of it as the work of the devil and could not imagine taking a ride in it. At the same time, the concept of the gasoline car had also emerged and prototypes put into production in France, Austria, and the United States. But these efforts failed to attract widespread attention or ignite interest in developing the car into the important means of transportation that it would become.
From the Mocked “Work of the Devil” to a Gold Design Award
Surrounded by this general skepticism, how did the Benz Patent-Motor Car eventually win approval? Here, we should introduce Bertha Benz, the wife of Carl Benz and a woman who had little understanding of engineering and cars.
In August 1888, Bertha Benz took the Benz Patent-Motor Car on the first long-distance test drive in the history of the car. She was the first person to drive a car for a long distance and made people aware of the importance of the car.
At dawn, when her husband was still sleeping, Bertha started the journey from their home in Mannheim with their two sons to the home of her parents more than 100 kilometers away. On the way, they attracted onlookers, and the car broke down, but they eventually arrived. At the time, no other car had made such a long journey; all other test drives had been short and experimental. Five days later, Bertha and her children made the over-100-kilometer journey back home to Mannheim. They bought fuel at a pharmacy during the trip, making the pharmacy the world’s first gas station (the city pharmacy in Wiesloch).
The Benz Patent-Motor Car’s Long-Distance Test Drive
Bertha’s bold move not only drew astonishment from spectators, but also showed critics that the car was reliable. It was undeniable that the car could speed up travel. While the car had to be fueled and repaired to be able to stay in good operating condition, its durability and practicality had been recognized.
On September 12, 1888, the Benz Patent-Motor Car was introduced at the Exhibition of Enginesand Working Machines in Munich. Compared with the steam-powered car and horse-drawn carriage, Carl Benz’s vehicle had an engine with better conversion efficiency and was easier to operate. The features of the vehicle, unconstrained by tracks, impressed spectators and won a gold award for design.
The success of the Benz Patent-Motor Car marked the culmination of Carl Benz’s childhood dream and a new chapter in the history of transportation.
After initial setbacks, Carl Benz’s efforts and his wife’s unwavering support set the development of the car on a solid path. Next generations continued to study and improve on Benz’s model. The Benz Patent-Motor Car is remembered as the vehicle that inaugurated the car century.
The Benz Patent-Motor Car Today
As we look back on the history of the automotive industry, the Benz Patent-Motor Car stands for more than the spirit of innovation and the incessant efforts in exploring the unknown, a new starting point in the industrial development of the world, and the dawn of the next hundred years of the automotive industry. It inspired the search for speed and better technology and impressed upon people the power of ideas, exploration, and technology.
The Beijing Auto Museum, Fifth Floor
January 29, 2016 is the 130th anniversary of the invention of the automobile. As a window into the automotive industry, the Beijing Auto Museum invites you to step into the hundred-year history of the automobile, observe its past, present, and future and how it became a means of transportation that- after a century of human effort and ingenuity - has neither borders nor differences of class and sex.
During your tour of the museum, you can also visit the Chinese-French Automotive Culture Exhibit, the Chinese-American Automotive Culture and Photography Exhibit, and the museum’s exhibit of the best of its collection at the conference of the International Council of Museums in Italy.
The Beijing Auto Museum welcomes you!