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A Tale of Two Vehicles: The First Gas-Powered Automobile

Don’t you hate it when you come up with an ingenious idea, only to have someone else beat you to the punch and patent it first? That’s sort of what happened with the invention of the automobile. Travel back in time with us to Germany, just before the turn of the 20th century, and watch this tale unfold between two men who worked on the same problem without even knowing it!

Transportation in the 1880s

As a new century approached, people in the 1880s still relied on horse-drawn carriages or their own two feet to help them reach their destinations. Many elected to use trains if they needed to make longer treks. Streets were littered with horse manure, which were regularly cleaned in the pre-dawn hours before ladies and gentlemen awoke to take on the new day. In fact, many large cities around the world were experiencing a horse manure crisis (the horse population in New York City at the time reached just over 100,000!).

Two Clever Inventors, One Brilliant Idea

In the German towns of Mannheim and Cannstatt, two men who never met one another dreamed of the day when people could travel to and fro without needing to rely on horses. Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz, the future pioneers of the automobile industry, were determined to make their dreams come true and market their inventions internationally. They set to work in 1885 to develop the world’s first ever automobile – and each came up with their own unique designs.

Daimler: Double the Wheels, Double the Success

Teaming up with Wilhelm Maybach, another engine designer, Daimler began working on his idea by fitting a gas engine – or one powered by kerosene – to a vehicle with two wheels. Shaped like a grandfather clock, the engine was smaller, lighter, and more powerful than any other engine at the time. Daimler finished his vehicle, which he called a “riding car” and had a successful test run.

Of course, Daimler wasn’t finished. In 1886, he created the world’s first four-wheeled automobile, a motorized carriage that housed a modified, more powerful version of the “grandfather clock” engine. He presented his motor carriage to several foreign contacts, and both France and Britain took note. Meanwhile, Daimler couldn’t stop dreaming about motorizing other modes of transportation, including boats, rail vehicles, and even aircrafts!

Benz: Three Wheels Will Do Just Nicely, Thank You

Meanwhile in Mannheim, Karl Friedrich Benz set his sights on creating an engine that would be “a dwarf in terms of weight, but a titan in terms of power.” Since no solution was yet found for steering a four-wheeled vehicle, Benz decided to make the “velocipede,” a three-wheeled motorwagen, which is recognized today as the world’s first car. While he didn’t manage to attract the attention of many foreign contacts until near the end of the 1800s, he did find success in the United States and South Africa, thanks especially to one person – his wife.

The Epic Road Trip that Changed History

It’s a scientific fact – owning a vehicle of any sort gives you the itch to head out on the open road. Enter Bertha Benz, the inventor’s wife. In 1888, Bertha became the first person to complete a long-distance trip in her husband’s new automobile – without his permission (although she did leave him a note!). She and their two young sons traveled a whopping 60 miles from their home in Mannheim to visit her mother in Pforzheim. Along the way, she stopped by the apothecary to purchase petroleum solvent for the car. In total, the trip took about 15 hours, and they returned home 3 days later. Bertha’s trip made headlines, which helped popularize Benz’s invention!

The Automobile Today

Can you imagine driving a car with only one cylinder and a top speed of about 10 miles per hour? That’s what you would experience in Benz’s gasoline-fueled creation. In the early 1900s, Henry Ford sold his first quadri-cycle, kick-starting the automobile industry as we know it. Now, a typical American car can reach, on average, 120-horsepower and features fuel-saving technology (not to mention clever ways to help you enjoy your favorite tunes along the way).

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