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Karl Benz

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Karl Benz

Karl Friedrich Benz, sometimes spelled Carl, ( November 25, 1844, Karlsruhe, Germany – April 4, 1929, Ladenburg, Germany) was a German engine designer and automobile engineer, generally regarded as the inventor of the gasoline-powered automobile. Other German contemporaries, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach working as partners, also worked on similar types of inventions and apparently, without knowledge of the work of the other, but Benz patented his work first and, after that, patented all of the processes that made the internal combustion engine feasible for use in automobiles. In 1879 Benz was granted a patent for his first engine, which he designed in 1878.

In 1885, Karl Benz created the Motorwagen, the first commercial automobile. It was powered by a four-stroke gasoline engine, which was his own design. He was granted a patent for his automobile which was dated January 29, 1886. The automobile had three wheels, being steered by the front wheel and with the passengers and the engine being supported by the two wheels in the rear—some now refer to it as the Tri-Car. He sold his first automobile in 1888, four years before any other manufacturer.

Among other things, he invented the speed regulation system known also as an accelerator, ignition using sparks from a battery, the spark plug, the clutch, the gear shift, the water radiator, and the carburetor.

In 1893, Benz also introduced the axle-pivot steering system in his Victoria model. The Benz Victoria was designed for two passengers and intended to be sold for a lower cost to encourage mass production of the automobile.

In 1896, Karl Benz designed and patented the first internal combustion flat engine with horizontally-opposed pistons, called a boxer engine or boxermotor in German, a design that is still used in some high performance engines used in racing cars.

Replica of the Benz Patent Motorwagen built in 1885

Karl Benz founded the Benz Company, precursor of Daimler-Benz, DaimlerChrysler, and Daimler AG. Before dying he would witness the explosion of automobile use during the 1920s, thanks to his inventions.

Early life

Karl Benz was born Karl Friedrich Michael Vaillant, in Karlsruhe, Baden, which is part of modern Germany, to Josephine Vaillant and a locomotive driver, Johann George Benz, whom she married a few months later. When he was two years old, his father was killed in a railway accident, and his name was changed to Karl Friedrich Benz in remembrance of his father.

Karl Benz, twenty-five years old, in 1869 (collection of Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH)

Despite living near poverty, his mother strove to give him a good education. Benz attended the local Grammar School in Karlsruhe and was a prodigious student. In 1853, at the age of nine he started at the scientifically oriented Lyzeum. Next he studied in the Poly-Technical University under the instruction of Ferdinand Redtenbacher.

Benz had originally focused his studies on locksmithing, but eventually followed his father's steps toward locomotive engineering. On September 30, 1860, at age fifteen, he passed the entrance exam for mechanical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe, which he subsequently attended. Benz was graduated July 9, 1864 at nineteen.

During these years, while riding his bicycle, he started to envision concepts for a vehicle that would eventually become the horseless carriage.

Following his formal education, Benz had seven years of professional training in several companies, but did not fit well in any of them. The training started in Karlsruhe with two years of varied jobs in a mechanical engineering company.

He then moved to Mannheim to work as a draftsman and designer in a scales factory. In 1868 he went to Pforzheim to work for a bridge building company Gebrüder Benckiser Eisenwerke und Maschinenfabrik. Finally, he went to Vienna for a short period to work at an iron construction company.

Benz's Factory and his first inventions (1871 to 1882)

In 1871, at the age of twenty-seven, Karl Benz joined August Ritter in launching a mechanical workshop in Mannheim, also dedicated to supplying construction materials: the Iron Foundry and Mechanical Workshop, later renamed, Factory for Machines for Sheet-metal Working.

The enterprise's first year was a complete disaster. Ritter turned out to be unreliable and local authorities confiscated the business. The difficulty was solved when Benz's fiancée, Bertha Ringer, bought out Ritter's share in the company using her dowry.

In July 20, 1872 Karl Benz and Bertha Ringer married, later having five children: Eugen (1873), Richard (1874), Clara (1877), Thilde (1882), and Ellen (1890).

Despite such business misfortunes, Karl Benz led in the development of new engines. To get more revenues, in 1878 he began to work on new patents. First, he concentrated all his efforts on creating a reliable gas two-stroke engine. Benz finished his two-stroke engine on December 31, 1878, New Year's Eve, and was granted a patent for it in 1879.

Karl Benz showed his real genius, however, through his successive inventions registered while designing what would become the production standard for his two-stroke engine. Benz soon patented the speed regulation system, the ignition using sparks with battery, the spark plug, the carburetor, the clutch, the gear shift, and the water radiator.

Benz's Gasmotoren-Fabrik Mannheim (1882 to 1883)

Problems arose again when the banks at Mannheim demanded that Karl Benz's Gas Factory enterprise be incorporated due to the high production costs it maintained. Benz was forced to improvise an association with photographer Emil Bühler and his brother (a cheese merchant), in order to get additional bank support. The company became the joint-stock company Gasmotoren Fabrik Mannheim in 1882.

After all the necessary agreements, Benz was unhappy because he was left with merely five percent of the shares and a modest position as director. Worst of all, his ideas weren't considered when designing new products, so he withdrew from that corporation just one year later, in 1883.

Benz & Cie. and the Motorwagen

1885 Benz Patent Motorwagen

1885 Benz Tri-Car

Three wheels
Tubular steel frame
Rack and pinion steering, connected to a driver end tiller; wheel chained to front axle
Electric ignition
Differential rear end gears

(mechanically operated inlet valves)

Water-cooled internal combustion engine
Gas or petrol four-stroke horizontally mounted engine
Single cylinder, Bore 116 mm, Stroke 160 mm
Patent model: 958 cc, 0.8 hp, 600 W, 16 km/h
Commercialized model: 1600 cc, ¾ hp, 8 mph
Early logo used on automobiles by Karl Benz

Benz's lifelong hobby brought him to a bicycle repair shop in Mannheim owned by Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger. In 1883, the three founded a new company producing industrial machines: Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik, usually referred to as, Benz & Cie. Quickly growing to twenty-five employees, it soon began to produce gas engines as well.

The success of the company gave Benz the opportunity to indulge in his old passion of designing a horseless carriage. Based on his experience with, and fondness for, bicycles, he used similar technology when he created an automobile. It featured wire wheels (unlike carriages' wooden ones) with a four-stroke 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.

It was the first automobile entirely designed as such to generate its own power, not simply a motorized stage coach or horse carriage, which is why Karl Benz was granted his patent and is regarded as its inventor.

The beginnings of the Motorwagen in 1885 were less than spectacular. The tests often attracted many onlookers who laughed mockingly when it smashed against a wall because it initially was so difficult to control.

The Motorwagen was patented on January 29, 1886 as DRP-37435: "automobile fueled by gas". The first successful tests were carried out in the early summer of 1886 on public roads. 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, showing at the Paris Expo the same year.

Benz began to sell the vehicle—advertising it as the Benz Patent Motorwagen—making it the first commercially available automobile in history. The first customer, in late summer of 1888, is alleged later to have been committed to an insane asylum. The second buyer, Parisian bicycle manufacturer Emile Roger, who purchased an 1888 Benz, had a profound effect on Benz's success.

Roger had been building Benz engines under license from Karl Benz for several years, and in 1888, decided to add the Benz automobiles to the line he carried in Paris. Indeed, many of the early Benz automobiles were built in France and sold by Roger, since the Parisians were more inclined to purchase automobiles at the time.

Engine of the Benz Patent Motorwagen

Early customers faced significant problems. At the time, gasoline was available only from pharmacies that sold it as a cleaning product, and they didn't stock it in large quantities. The early-1888 version of the Motorwagen had to be pushed when driving up a steep hill. This limitation was rectified after Berta Benz made her famous trip driving one of the vehicles a great distance and suggested to her husband the addition of another gear.

The popular story about this first long distance automobile trip is that, supposedly without the knowledge of her husband, on the morning of August 5, 1888, Berta Benz took this vehicle on a 106 km (65 mile) trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim to visit her mother, taking her sons Eugen and Richard with her. In addition to having to locate fuel at pharmacies on the way, she also overcame various technical and mechanical problems and finally arrived at nightfall, announcing the achievement to Karl by telegram. It had been her intention to demonstrate the feasibility of using her husband's invention for travel and to obtain publicity that would make more people aware of it. Today the event is celebrated annually in Germany with an antique automobile rally.

Benz's Model 3 made its wide-scale debut to the world in the 1889 World's Fair in Paris, and about twenty-five Motorwagens were built between 1886 and 1893.

Benz & Cie. expansion

Karl Benz introduced the Velo in 1894, becoming the first production automobile
First bus in history: a Benz truck modified by Netphener company (1895)
Benz "Velo" model presentation in London 1898

The great demand for stationary, static internal combustion engines forced Karl Benz to enlarge the factory in Mannheim, and in 1886 a new building located on Waldhofstrasse (operating until 1908) was added. Benz & Cie. had grown in the interim from 50 employees in 1890 to 430 in 1899.

During the last years of the nineteenth century, Benz was the largest automobile company in the world with 572 units produced in 1899.

Because of its size, in 1899, Benz & Cie. became a joint-stock company with the arrival of Friedrich Von Fischer and Julius Ganß, who came aboard as members of the Board of Management. Ganß worked in the commercialization department, which is somewhat similar to marketing in contemporary corporations.

The new directors recommended that Benz should create a less expensive automobile suitable for mass production. In 1893, Karl Benz created the Victoria, a two-passenger automobile with a 3- hp engine, which could reach the top speed of 11 mph and had a pivotal front axle operated by a roller-chained tiller for steering. The model was successful with 85 units sold in 1893.

In 1894, Benz improved this design in his new Velo model. This was produced on such a remarkably large scale for the era—1,200 total from 1894 to 1901—it may be considered the first production automobile. The Benz Velo also participated in the first automobile race, the 1894 Paris to Rouen Rally.

In 1895, Benz designed the first truck in history, with some of the units later modified by the first bus company: the Netphener, becoming the first buses in history.

In 1896, Karl Benz was granted a patent for his design of the first flat engine. It had horizontally-opposed pistons, a design in which the corresponding pistons reach top dead centre simultaneously, thus balancing each other with respect to momentum. Flat engines with four or fewer cylinders are most commonly called boxer engines, boxermotor in German, and also are known as horizontally opposed engines. This design continues to be used.

Although Gottlieb Daimler died in March of 1900—and there is no evidence that Benz and Daimler knew each other nor that they knew about each other's early achievements—eventually, competition with Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft (DMG) in Stuttgart began to challenge the leadership of Benz & Cie. In October of 1900 the main designer of DMG, Wilhelm Maybach, built the engine that would be used later, in the Mercedes-35hp of 1902. The engine was built to the specifications of Emil Jellinek under a contract for him to purchase thirty-six vehicles with the engine and for him to become a dealer of the special series. Jellinek stipulated the new engine be named Daimler-Mercedes (for his daughter). Maybach would quit DMG in 1907, but he designed the model and all of the important changes. After testing, the first was delivered to Jellinek on December 22, 1900. Jellinek continued to make suggestions for changes to the model and obtained good results racing the automobile in the next few years, encouraging DMG to engage in commercial production of automobiles, which they did in 1902.

logo with laurels used on Benz & Cie automobiles after 1909

Benz countered with Parsifil, introduced in 1903 with a vertical twin engine that achieved a top speed of 37 mph. Then, without consulting Benz, the other directors hired some French designers. France was a country with an extensive automobile industry based on Maybach's creations. Because of this action, after difficult discussions, Karl Benz announced his retirement from design management on January 24, 1903, although he remained as director on the Board of Management through its merger with DMG in 1926 and, remained on the board of the new Daimler-Benz corporation until his death in 1929.

Benz's sons Eugen and Richard left Benz & Cie. in 1903, but Richard returned to the company in 1904 as the designer of passenger vehicles.

1909 Blitzen Benz - built by Benz & Cie., which held the land speed record for ten years

That year, sales of Benz & Cie. reached 3,480 automobiles, and the company remained the leading manufacturer of automobiles.

Along with continuing as a director of Benz & Cie., Karl Benz soon would found another company—with his son, Eugen—closely held within the family, manufacturing automobiles under another brand and using a French spelling variant of Benz's first name for the first initial of the privately-held company (see discussion in the next section).

In 1909, the Blitzen Benz was built in Mannheim by Benz & Cie. The bird-beaked vehicle had a 21.5-liter (1312ci), 200-horsepower engine, and on November 9, 1909 in the hands of Victor Hémery of France, the land speed racer at Brooklands, set a record of 202.68 km/h (125.94 mph), said to be "faster than any plane, train, or automobile" at the time, a record that was not exceeded for ten years by any other vehicle. It was transported to several countries, including the United States, to establish multiple records of this achievement.

Benz Söhne (1906 to 1923)

Karl and Bertha Benz c. 1914 (collection of Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH)

Karl Benz, Bertha Benz, and their son, Eugen, moved 10 km east of Mannheim to live in nearby Ladenburg, and solely with their own capital, founded the private company, C. Benz Sons (German: Benz Söhne) in 1906, producing automobiles and gas engines. The latter type was replaced by petrol engines because lack of demand.

logo on family held business production vehicles

This company never issued stocks publicly, building its own line of automobiles independently from Benz & Cie., which was located in Mannheim. The Benz Sons automobiles were of good quality and became popular in London as taxis.

In 1912, Karl Benz liquidated all of his shares in Benz Sons and left this family-held company in Ladenburg to Eugen and Richard, but he remained as a director of Benz & Cie.

During a birthday celebration for him in his home town of Karlsruhe on November 25, 1914, the seventy year-old Karl Benz was awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, the Karlsruhe University, thereby becoming—Dr. Ing. h. c. Karl Benz.

1923 Benz "Teardrop" aerodynamic racecar

Almost from the very beginning of the production of automobiles, participation in sports car racing became a major method to gain publicity for manufacturers. At first, the production models were raced and the Benz Velo participated in the first automobile race: Paris to Rouen 1894. Later, investment in developing racecars for motorsports produced returns through sales generated by the association of the name of the automobile with the winners. Unique race vehicles were built at the time, as seen in the photograph here of the Benz, the first mid-engine and aerodynamically designed, Tropfenwagen, a "teardrop" body introduced at the 1923 European Grand Prix at Monza.

In the last production year of the Benz Sons company, 1923, three hundred and fifty units were built. During the following year, 1924, Karl Benz built two additional 8/25 hp units of the automobile manufactured by this company, tailored for his personal use, which he never sold; they are still preserved.

Toward Daimler-Benz and the first Mercedes Benz in 1926

During the First World War, Benz & Cie. and Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft) both had massively increased their production for the war effort. After the conflict ended, both manufacturers resumed their normal activities, but the German economy was chaotic. The automobile was considered a luxury item and as such, was charged a 15% extra tax. At the same time, the country suffered a severe lack of petroleum. To survive this difficult situation, in 1919 Benz & Cie. proposed a cooperation suggested by Karl Benz through a representative, Karl Jahn, but DMG rejected the proposal in December.

The German economic crisis worsened. In 1923 Benz & Cie. produced only 1,382 units in Mannheim, and DMG made only 1,020 in Stuttgart. The average cost of an automobile was 25 million marks because of rapid inflation. Negotiations between the two companies resumed and in 1924 they signed an Agreement of Mutual Interest valid until the year 2000. Both enterprises standardized design, production, purchasing, sales, and advertising—marketing their automobile models jointly—although keeping their respective brands.

On June 28, 1926, Benz & Cie. and DMG finally merged as the Daimler-Benz company, baptizing all of its automobiles, Mercedes Benz, honoring the most important model of the DMG automobiles, the 1902 Mercedes-35hp, along with the Benz name. The name of that DMG model had been selected after ten-year-old Mercedes Jellinek, the daughter of Emil Jellinek who had set the specifications for the new model. Between 1900 and 1909 he was a member of DMG's board of management and long before the merger Jellinek had resigned.

Last home of Karl and Bertha Benz, now the location of the Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz Foundation in Ladenburg, Germany

Karl Benz was a member of the new Daimler Benz board of management for the remainder of his life. A new logo was created, consisting of a three pointed star (representing Daimler's motto: "engines for land, air, and water") surrounded by traditional laurels from the Benz logo, and the brand of all of its automobiles was labeled Mercedes Benz. Model names would follow the brand name in the same convention as today.

The next year, 1927, the number of units sold tripled to 7,918 and the diesel line was launched for truck production. In 1928 the Mercedes Benz SS was presented.

On April 4, 1929, Karl Benz died at home in Ladenburg at the age of eighty-four from a bronchial inflammation. Until her death on May 5, 1944, Bertha Benz continued to reside in their last home. Members of the family resided in the home for thirty more years. The Benz home now has been designated as historic and is used as a scientific meeting facility for a nonprofit foundation, the Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz Foundation, that honours both Bertha and Karl Benz for their roles in the history of automobiles.

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