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29 January 2011

On this day in history: First gasoline-driven automobile patented, 1886

The German engine designer and automobile engineer Karl Benz was born on 25th November 1844 in Karlsruhe, Baden, to Josephine Vaillant. A few months after he was born, his mother married his father, a locomotive driver named Johann George Benz, who died in a railway accident when Karl was only two years old. The death left the family in financial difficulty, but Josephine managed to provide her son with a quality education.

Karl was an excellent student, attending the local grammar school and technical college before gaining a place at the city's university to study mechanical engineering at the age of fifteen. He graduated in 1864 at the age of nineteen and spent the next seven years moving between jobs where he received professional training. In 1871 Benz opened a mechanical workshop in Mannheim with August Ritter.

Ritter turned out to be a liability. The business only survived when Benz's fiancee, Bertha Ringer, used her dowry to buy Ritter's shares. The business continued to struggle financially, so from 1878 Benz started working on patenting various innovations in engine design, including the two stroke engine, an ignition system using sparks from a battery, spark plugs, the carburetor, the clutch, the gear shift, and the water radiator. Nevertheless, the high production costs of Benz's Gas Factory resulted in the local banks demanding that his business become incorporated.

The creation of the joint-stock company Gasmotoren Fabrik Mannheim in 1882 left Benz with only five per cent of the shares in the business. He also became marginalised when it came to designing new products. Dissatisfied, a year later he left the company that he had built to enter into a partnership with the owners of a bicycle repair business, Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm E├člinger.

The company called Benz & Company Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik produced a successful range of industrial machines and quickly expanded. The success of the business enabled Benz to start developing his ideas for a horseless carriage that he had been considering since his youth. In 1885 he produced the Benz Patent Motorwagen. A three wheeled vehicle powered by a 0.8hp four-stroke engine with a top speed of 16 km/h (10 mph).

On 29th January 1886, Benz patented his Motorwagen. Over the next few years Benz tested his design on public roads, refined his design and produced two more models of his Motorwagen, which he made available for sale to the public. In 1888 he made his first sales, including one to the Paris-based bicycle manufacturer Emile Roger. Roger had previously produced Benz's engines under license, now he also started manufacturing the automobiles and selling them to Parisians.

Benz continued to produce innovative designs of motor vehicles. In 1894 he produced the Velo, which many regard as the first production automobile and a year later he designed the first truck. He died in 1929 at the age of eighty-four as one of the key figures in the development of the automobile industry.

A facsimile of Benz's 1886 German patent No. 37435 is available to download in pdf format.

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