Benz Patents the First Practical Automobile

Taking advantage of many previous inventions, Carl Benz succeeded in designing and building the world’s first practical vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine and not confined to railway tracks. His name is still associated with many of the most important innovations of the automotive industry.

Summary of Event

With the growth of railroads during the early nineteenth century, many people naturally thought about the possibility of inventing a self-propelled road vehicle that would provide the flexible mobility of the horse-drawn carriage. Numerous engineers and amateur inventors devoted their time and talents to the realization of this dream. Although there are contradictory claims, most historians agree that Carl Benz’s innovative automobile was the first that was truly functional. Automobiles;invention of
Benz, Carl
Daimler, Gottlieb
[kw]Benz Patents the First Practical Automobile (Jan. 29, 1886)
[kw]Patents the First Practical Automobile, Benz (Jan. 29, 1886)
[kw]First Practical Automobile, Benz Patents the (Jan. 29, 1886)
[kw]Practical Automobile, Benz Patents the First (Jan. 29, 1886)
[kw]Automobile, Benz Patents the First Practical (Jan. 29, 1886)
Automobiles;invention of
Benz, Carl
Daimler, Gottlieb
[g]Germany;Jan. 29, 1886: Benz Patents the First Practical Automobile[5470]
[c]Inventions;Jan. 29, 1886: Benz Patents the First Practical Automobile[5470]
[c]Science and technology;Jan. 29, 1886: Benz Patents the First Practical Automobile[5470]
[c]Transportation;Jan. 29, 1886: Benz Patents the First Practical Automobile[5470]
Marcus, Siegfried
Otto, Nikolaus August
Carhart, John Wesley
Lenoir, Étienne
Cugnot, Nicolas-Joseph

Before Benz, a few inventors developed self-propelled vehicles that utilized steam engines Steam engines;and automobiles[Automobiles] . In 1769, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot Cugnot, Nicolas-Joseph constructed a large steam-driven three-wheeled vehicle that traveled only a few yards before overturning; the discouraged Cugnot decided to pursue other projects. In 1801, Richard Thevithick’s steam-powered passenger coach actually carried passengers successfully, but it was too heavy and slow to be of any practical use. Thevithick soon discovered that steam engines operated very effectively on locomotives confined to rails, and within two decades railroads were being used for commercial purposes. In 1872, John Wesley Carhart Carhart, John Wesley demonstrated an improved steam-powered automobile in Racine, Wisconsin, but like his predecessors, he was unable to overcome the problems of size and weight that steam engines Steam engines;and automobiles[Automobiles] presented when attached to automobiles operating on open roads.

Seeking an alternative to the steam engine, Étienne Lenoir Lenoir, Étienne in 1860 built an internal combustion engine that used coal gas and operated in a two-stroke piston cycle. It was a small and reliable engine that proved to be useful in small workshops. By 1867, Nikolaus August Otto Otto, Nikolaus August had significantly improved on Lenoir’s design, and ten years later he obtained a patent for a more powerful four-stroke engine. The Otto engine would become the standard design for modern automobiles. Austrian Siegfried Marcus Marcus, Siegfried would later claim that he had built a vehicle powered by a four-stroke engine in 1875, but the only reliable evidence suggests that he probably did not build a vehicle until 1889.

Carl Benz, the son of a railroad mechanic, began thinking about a “horseless carriage” during his high school years in Karlsruhe, Baden. He later wrote: “My favorite idea was to get the locomotive to run on the road. I wanted to release it from the fixity of its path.” While studying mechanical engineering at the Technical College of Karlsruhe during the early 1860’s, his science teacher, Ferdinand Redtenbacher Redtenbacher, Ferdinand , introduced the eager youth to the recently invented Lenoir Lenoir, Étienne gas engine. In 1871, after gaining experience in engineering firms, Benz set up a small workshop in Mannheim for making mechanical tools. His business faced chronic difficulties, and on several occasions he escaped bankruptcy only because of the assistance of his long-suffering wife, Bertha Ringer Benz.

About 1877, as the first step in building an automobile, Benz concentrated on improving the internal combustion engine. Because Otto Otto, Nikolaus August still had a patent on the four-stroke engine, Benz had no choice but to work with the two-stroke design. After successfully building a two-stroke engine in 1879, Benz was finally able to attract interest from investors. In 1883, he established the Benz and Compagnie Rheinische Gasmotorenfabrik (Benz and Company Rhenish Gas-Powered Engine Factory) in Mannheim. Borrowing from the experiments of Austrian Julian Hook, Benz had decided to build an engine that used gasoline. The challenging project required three innovations: a carburetor to mix the fuel with air, an electrical system to ignite the explosion in the cylinder, and a radiator to cool the engine.

By 1884, Benz had developed a satisfactory single-cylinder motor. He then began working to overcome the many engineering problems associated with designing a functional chassis. He decided to copy the design of the pedal tricycle, which did not require the complicated steering arrangement of a four-wheeled vehicle. He used large wire-spoked wheels and mounted the rear axle on metal springs. The small engine was set horizontally in order easily to connect the engine to the drive wheels by side chains. A large flywheel kept the power running smoothly. The transmission was based on the belt-and-pulley arrangement that Benz had often seen in factories.

By the spring of 1885, Benz had an automobile ready for testing. In the first trial, he drove around the factory yard. On the second trial, the car crashed into a brick wall (the world’s first automobile accident), but the damages were quickly repaired. By that summer, Benz had made numerous improvements to the vehicle and was able to drive it more than one-half mile at a speed of about seven and one-half miles per hour. In July, local newspapers for the first time described the new invention. On January 29, 1886, Benz obtained a patent on his automobile. Later that year, he was delighted to learn that Otto was losing his patent for the four-cycle engine, and Benz quickly adapted the more powerful engine for his automobile.

Benz was not the only person seriously attempting to develop a functional automobile at the time. During the early 1880’s, Gottlieb Daimler of Württemberg Württemberg , a talented engineer who had worked for Otto Otto, Nikolaus August , was busy inventing a vertical single-cylinder engine that ran at a lower speed than did Benz’s engine. In 1885, Daimler built the world’s first motorcycle, and his son drove the bulky machine for two miles. Later that year, Daimler learned of Benz’s automobile when he happened to see a Benz car in Paris, France. In 1886, he and his assistant, Wilhelm Maybach, fitted a one-horsepower engine onto the world’s first four-wheeled motor vehicle, which reached the impressive speed of eleven miles per hour. For the remainder of their lives, Benz and Daimler remained bitter rivals, and each of them claimed to be the originator of the motorcar.

In 1887, Benz demonstrated his invention at the Paris Exposition, but it did not attract a great deal of attention. Nevertheless, that same year the company sold its first car to Émile Roger, owner of a mechanical workshop in Paris, France. In the summer of 1888, Bertha Benz drove one of her husband’s cars from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back (fifty miles) with her two sons. By 1893, Benz’s company was building four-wheeled vehicles that were commercially successful. By the end of the century, the company had sold almost five hundred cars and, stimulated by numerous competitors, it constantly worked on technical improvements. In 1926, the company merged with the Mercedes (Daimler) organization to become Daimler-Benz, one of the premier manufacturers of all time.


Although crude and small by modern standards, Benz’s first automobile represented a major technological breakthrough. If Benz had not completed his automobile in 1885, it should be noted that Daimler and others at the time were busy designing and building similar vehicles that were also powered by internal combustion Internal combustion engines engines. It would be a mistake, however, to minimize Benz’s many contributions. His innovative designs for a carburetor, cooling system, and transmission provided models for many of the standard features of later automobiles.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, automobiles were so undependable and expensive that relatively few people purchased or used them. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, however, continuing technological improvements made them cheaper, more efficient, and more reliable. By the time of Benz’s death in 1929, it had become almost impossible for affluent persons in the industrialized world to imagine daily life without the conveniences and hazards afforded by the automobile.

Further Reading

  • Bankston, John. Karl Benz and the Single Cylinder Engine. Hockessin, Del.: Mitchell Lane, 2005. Forty-eight-page book written primarily for young readers; emphasizes the difficulties and competition involved in Benz’s work.
  • Diesel, Eugene. From Engines to Autos. Chicago: H. Regency, 1960. A standard treatment of the early history of automobiles.
  • Eckermann, Eric. World History of the Automobile. New York: Society of Automotive Engineers, 2001. Describes development of the automobile from its roots in animal-drawn conveyances to modern advances, including the early vehicles of Benz.
  • Feldman, Anthony, and Peter Ford. Scientists and Inventors. New York: Facts On File, 1979. Useful essays about Benz, Daimler, and other individuals from the ancient Greeks until the 1960’s, with many provocative photographs.
  • Glancey, Jonathan. The Car: The Illustrated History of the Automobile. London: Carlton Books, 2003. Primarily noteworthy for its many fine illustrations.
  • Nixon, St. John C. The Invention of the Automobile. London: Country Life, 1936. A standard account of the pioneering works of Benz and Daimler.
  • Roberts, Peter. The History of the Automobile. New York: Exeter Books, 1984. Useful as a general introduction to the topic.
  • Singer, Charles, et al. A History of Technology. 4 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. A dependable work that includes an interesting summary of the development of automobiles.
  • Williams, Brian. Karl Benz. New York: Wayland, 1991. A forty-five-page account that is factually accurate with many illustrations, useful for high school students as well as adult readers.

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