Karl Benz was a genius. Engineer and inventor, he worked tirelessly on his idea of a “horseless carriage”, which he called the Patent-Motorwagen. At the time, the idea of a motorised horseless carriage was unthinkable! Consider the circumstances: horses were abundant. They were not only transportation, they were majestic beasts and loyal companions.
By Cynthia Chirinda Hakutangwi
Horses were fuelled by hay, which grew everywhere. Petroleum, on the other hand, had to be dug up and bought. You could buy some at the local pharmacy, where it was sold as cleaning solvent, but it was much cheaper to simply let your horse graze.
The Kaiser himself loved horses, and called anyone who would replace them “unpatriotic”. Then there was the ultra-conservative church, who might look upon horseless carriages as heresy or witchcraft. Given the political climate, it’s no surprise Karl Benz isolated himself in his workshop, with no plans of ever selling his creations. His wife, Bertha, came from a wealthy family and supported him, as she believed in him and what he was building. She knew people would love the horseless carriage if they only saw it in action.
Frustrated by her husband’s apparent unwillingness to act on his own, Bertha took matters into her own hands. In early August 1888, Bertha packed up one of her husband’s cars, the recently completed Patent-Motorwagen No 3, and with her two teenage sons in tow set out to visit her mother in Pforzheim. She didn’t tell Karl beforehand, but instead left him a letter informing him of her plans.
The Benzes hit the road — which in many places turned out to be rocky, dusty and unpaved — with Bertha acting as both driver and automobile mechanic along the way.
When she ran low on fuel, she sought out a local pharmacy that sold ligroin, the petroleum solvent used to run Karl Benz’s cars. She made an emergency repair to the car’s ignition with her garter. When the fuel line became clogged part of the way through their journey, Bertha was able to clear it using nothing more than her hairpin. Bertha is even credited with devising the world’s first pair of brake pads: when the car’s worn-down, wooden brakes began to fail, she asked a local shoemaker to install leather soles instead.
The three travellers finally reached the home of Bertha’s mother around dusk, having covered 65 miles in less than 12 hours. Bertha sent Karl a telegram informing him of the family’s safe arrival, but news of her exploit had already reached the press, thanks to eyewitness reports from residents of the towns and villages Bertha and the boys had passed along the way. Most expressed amazement at Karl Benz’s achievement and how safe it seemed to be, although others were reportedly terrified of the sudden appearance of the automobile in their midst — one driven by a woman, no less. While the publicity was certainly nice, there was a more practical upshot to Bertha Benz’s road trip. The difficulties she and her sons faced getting Karl’s 2,5-horsepower car up neighbouring hills (often manually pushing the car uphill) convinced the inventor to make a crucial modification — the introduction of the world’s first gear system.
Proving to her husband, and to the world, the practicality of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, Bertha drove 65 miles across Germany, terrifying more closed-minded townsfolk, and inspiring many more. When she returned to her husband a few days later, he was already receiving orders from customers eager to try this novel mode of transportation.
From ordinary to extraordinary
In his groundbreaking book, Mediocre Me: How Saying No to the Status Quo will Propel you from Ordinary to Extraordinary, Brigadier General John Michel, experienced leader, humanitarian, visionary, and renown status quo buster, believes that every challenge involves confronting the status quo.
Every single leader, movement, and organisation that has ever wanted to create greatness has had to challenge the status quo. Leaders challenge the status quo to entice improvements. Organisations challenge the status quo to assemble advancements. People challenge the status quo to dig deeper into development. Challenging the status quo takes an open mind, open heart, and open will. To have an open heart, you need to inspire and encourage others to take a chance. To have an open will, you must be willing to risk and take bold steps. To have an open mind, you need to constantly be learning and growing. To make a difference, to have an impact, and to become great, we must do the unorthodox thing. Every challenge involves confronting the status quo. This precept means we have to test the unproven, dive deep in the unspoken, and challenge the unchallenged.
To move from mediocrity to greatness, we must venture out. To build something substantial, we must take a strong stand. To create something meaningful, we must create significance. Nothing great is ever achieved by doing things the way they have always been done. To challenge the status quo, we must take one fearless choice at a time, one brave decision at a time, one courageous action at a time.
These choices, decisions, and actions transform challenges into exploration, risk into reward, and fear into determination. Bertha Benz’s 1888 triumph has been memorialised in books and on film, and today motorists can travel the 120-mile-long Bertha Benz Memorial Route, which follows the path of her historic trip.