More than a decade after opening an “Iron Foundry and Machine Shop,” Karl Benz made the breakthrough he had been hoping for: a four-stroke engine powered by gasoline. After attaching his invention to a two-person carriage, Benz received a patent for a “vehicle powered by a gas engine” on January 29, 1886. The car was born.
Throughout his twenties, Benz bounced around Germany in search of the best means to apply his education as a mechanical engineer. Unable to fit in with any company, he joined with a partner to form a small factory in the city of Mannheim in southwest Germany. Forced to take on the responsibility of running the company alone after learning his co-owner could not be counted on, Benz’s operation was saved by the intervention of his future wife, Bertha.
Moderately successful through the 1870s, Benz chose to concentrate on inventing new technologies he could license in order to generate more income. After completing a two-stroke engine in late 1878, he went on to develop a series of related products to automate ignition, manage speed and dissipate heat. Frustrated with investors who disregarded his inventing prowess despite these successes, he left the company in 1883 to found another focused exclusively on making gas engines.
In 1885, he made the breakthrough on the “horseless carriage” he daydreamed about. Attaching a four-stroke engine to a three-wheeled carriage, he determined how to generate consistent drive using a pair of chains to transfer torque and turn the rear wheels. Combining a host of new ideas, such as electrical ignition of the engine’s spark plugs and an evaporative cooling system, he received a patent on January 29, 1886.
For the next three years, as other Germans such as Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach developed similar designs for an automobile (including a four-wheeled version from the former), Benz made continual modifications to improve control and increase power. However, as of 1888, the engine could not pull the car uphill. His wife would change all that by taking a 66-mile drive to Pforzheim to let her children see her mother — a canny marketing move to show how well the car handled on the open road.
Along the way, Bertha came up with ideas for a handful of alterations to the current design, inadvertently making the first brake linings — an additional strap of leather created more friction to slow the car when rolling downhill — and offering Benz a key suggestion: give the engine a second gear. With the factory now bustling due to the demand for internal combustion engines, he made changes once again and put the third model on sale.
Over the course of five years, Benz pumped out 25 automobiles. From 1893 on, the number of orders would explode thanks to the creation of less expensive mass production techniques, an idea encouraged by his new business partners. The result, the Benz Velo, sold more than a 1,000 units. Additional designs were created for trucks and buses in the next two years, launching a revolution in transportation when coupled with work done by Daimler’s company.
As the 20th century dawned, competition between the two organizations resulted in more powerful engines and sleeker designs. Maybach worked with Emil Jellinek to create the first modern automobile for Daimler — the Mercedes-35hp (named after Jellinek’s daughter) — in 1902. Benz followed with the Parsifil, able to maintain a top speed of 37mph on flat roads. Sales continued to blossom, with well into the thousands of cars sold year upon year.
After another two decades of fighting to build the best cars in Germany, Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft and Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik joined together during a deep economic crisis in 1926. Sales of the new Mercedes-Benz tripled in 1927, forming the foundation for what remains one of the world’s best-loved luxury car brands.
Also On This Day:
1737 – Thomas Paine, author of American Revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, is born in Thetford, England
1845 – Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is published in the New York Evening Mirror
1916 – Paris is bombed by German zeppelins for the first time
1991 – The Battle of Khafji, the deadliest conflict in the Gulf War, erupts in northeastern Saudi Arabia
2005 – Commercial air service between Taipei, Taiwan and Beijing, China occurs for the first time since 1949
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January 29 1737 – Thomas Paine, author of American Revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, is born in Thetford, England