|Bertha and Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler|
Portrait : New Indian Express
James Watt watched a tea kettle boil, and built a steam engine. This is what we read in school. But England imported tea from China; the Chinese have boiled tea for a thousand years before the English. Why didn’t some Chinese James Watt invent the steam engine?
Karl Benz built the first petrol engine car in Germany, a hundred years after Watt. Nobody boils tea in petrol, so what inspired Karl Benz?
From Steam to Petrol
James Watt’s steam engine, was NOT inspired by a tea kettle, but by earlier steam engines by Thomas Savery and William Newcomen. But theirs were inefficient engines – Watt’s major breakthrough took twenty years of hard work and several incremental improvements, mainly in measuring devices. His crucial breakthrough was an external condenser. Watt’s stationary engine, powered cotton mills and mechanical presses in the 1780s. The railway steam engine, was invented forty years later by Richard Trevithick and George Stephenson in the 1820s. In the intervening period, scientists discovered several laws of heat and power – the field of thermodynamics. Petroleum was discovered only in the 1850s. But it was primarily used for lighting lamps or stoves.
But some tinkering engineers saw great potential in petrol, as a substitute for steam engines. Coal was hard to mine, slow to ignite, difficult and dirty to handle and caused a lot of smoke and grime; petrol on the other hand, flowed from oil wells, could be stored in tanks, flowed through pipes and had a much lower ignition point.
The petrol engine was invented by Nikolaus Otto, a travelling salesman for a food company! He had been inspired by an engine designed by Lenoir that ran on coal gas; Otto experimented with a copy of a Lenoir engine that another skilled mechanic built for him in 1861. He created an engine fueled with an alcohol air mixture. Eugen Langen, owner of a sugar refinery, invested in a new company that Otto started, and he built an improved engine. At the 1867 Paris exhibition, his engine won the first prize. He expanded this company, reorganized as Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz AG. This was not a car engine, but more like a mechanical power device for workshops, like printing presses.
Otto hired Gottlieb Daimler and William Maybach to improve it; they made it smaller, quieter, more efficient. But when Daimler proposed fitting Otto’s engine to power a horseless carriage, Otto showed no interest.
So Daimler and Maybach quit Otto’s company in 1882, rented a house in Canstatt and started a car company. Daimler experimented, first fitting a bicycle with a petrol engine – the world’s first motorbike, called the Motoren Gesselschaft. Daimler’s seventeen year old son Paul test drove it – the ultimate teenager fantasy!
This public demonstration provoked amazement and curiosity. But a local newspaper, Canstatt Zeitung was quite critical, calling it a “repugnant diabolical device, dangerous to citizens.” Paul test drove the bike at nights, in secret. He even replaced the front wheel with a skid, and drove it on a frozen lake!
Offended by media criticism, but not discouraged, Daimler then tested the engine on a boat. He disguised it with wires to pretend it was electric. After it proved successful, he revealed he had used a petrol engine!
In 1886, for his wife Emma’s birthday he ordered a magnificent horse carriage – delivered secretly at night. He planned to build a car, with that carriage.
Ringing in a New Era
Parallely, in Mannheim, a nearby city, Karl Benz tried to build a petrol engine. His earlier business failed. But his wife Bertha had great faith in him and her dowry was useful for his experiments. After many failures, he successfully ran a stationary two stroke petrol engine on the last day of 1879. In his own words:
After supper my wife said, “Let us go over to the shop and try our luck once more.” My heart was pounding. I turned the crank. The engine started to go “put-put-put”, and the music of the future sounded with regular rhythm. We both listened to it run for a full hour, fascinated, never tiring of the single tone of its song. The longer it played its note, the more sorrow and anxiety it conjured away from the heart. Suddenly the bells began to ring – New Years Eve bells. We felt they were not just ringing in a new year, but a new era.
He mounted his engine on a three wheel carriage, calling it the Benz Patent Motorwagen. The local newspaper Mannheimer Zeitung attacked Benz’s idea calling it, “useless, ridiculous, indecent. Who would buy it when there are horses for sale?” But in 1885 he drove the Motorwagen on the streets and it became a sensation! But not many people actually bought his Motorwagen.
Bertha’s Benzene Yatra
Bertha, Karl’s wife is the great romantic heroine of what followed. In August 1888, one morning, she asked her fifteen year old son Eugen “Can you drive it?”
The right answer was “No, mother, my Dad put an engine with a steering rod on a horse carriage. Nobody knows how to drive it.”
But Eugen said, “Of course!”
With Eugen’s brother Richard, the family drove to visit Bertha’s family in Pforzheim. There were no petrol bunks then. So they refueled with benzene, sold at apothecaries (pharmacies!). Bertha fixed a short circuit in the engine, with her hairpin. Eugen repaired the chains when they slipped. Karl was annoyed, but when Germans realized that a mother and children could safely drive a car a hundred km, they became national celebrities. Bertha’s drive is as famous in Germany as Gandhi’s Dandi yatra is in India.
Teenage drivers, dowry money, media critics, a daring cross country journey, ushering in a new era – sounds like a mega serial, but this is real history!
Shoulders of Giants
Darwin and Wallace, independently discovered evolution while living on different continents; Wallace’s letter to Darwin forced the latter to publish; after this they became friends and mutual admirers. Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler independently invented the petrol based car, but never met each other, even though they lived in the same country! Oddly, several years after Daimler died, the companies they started would merge as Daimler-Benz.
But they shared history, by standing on the shoulders of giants who came before them. Otto’s engine, was inspired by Lenoir, who was inspired by James Watt, who was inspired by Newcomen and Savery!
Note Today, March 17 is Gottlieb Daimler's birthday. This essay was originally published in New Indian Express under the title Changing History's Gears as part of a series about scientists.
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