Mother Knows Best: How One Family Roadtrip Launched the Automobile Age

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Mother Knows Best: How One Family Roadtrip Launched the Automobile Age

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Bertha Benz was the first roadtripper.

Bertha Benz drove Benz Patent-Motorwagen No.3 60 miles to her mom.

Benz was using commercial solvent as fuel but soon electricity was the most popular source of power. Here is an electric car with a GE charging station c. 1912

An electric car with a GE charging station.

Friday, August 2, 2013 - 10:45am

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One summer morning in southern Germany, Bertha Benz climbed into her husband’s car, grabbed her two teenage sons, and drove off to her mother’s house 60 miles away without telling her husband. What sounds like a budding family drama was in fact a historic roadtrip that launched the automobile age. Bertha’s husband was Carl Benz, the perfectionist inventor of the automobile, who has been reluctant take his car for a drive “until it’s ready.” Bertha, on the other hand, lacked Carl’s patience and wanted to show the results. Her ride, which took place on August 5, 1888, was the world’s first long distance journey by car.

The first Carl Benz car had just three wheels, a tiny single-cylinder engine producing 2 horsepower, and top speed of 10 mph. But it started a car craze that soon swept Europe and the U.S. Soon inventors, engineers and enthusiasts started making cars and car parts. Today, Carl is the Benz in Mercedes Benz.

Bertha powered her car with Ligroin, a petroleum-based solvent she purchased at chemists along her route. But in the early days, hydrocarbons were by no means the obvious fuel choice. Some 38 percent of American cars in 1900 were electric, 40 used steam and only 22 percent burned gasoline. There was even a fleet of electric taxis in New York City.

GE, for example, produced the Mercury Arc Rectifier, described in company advertising as “the most efficient device yet designed for charging electric vehicle batteries from alternating current.” In 1910, the company said that “the growing use of the electric automobile, with its many advantages of simplicity, ease of operation and noiselessness, has resulted in a demand for some means of conveniently charging the batteries.” GE made EV chargers for public and private garages into the 1920s.

The lack of charging infrastructure tipped the balance to gasoline, but a century later GE is back in the EV business. The company has developed the WattStation and DuraStation EV chargers. The chargers can be connected to solar panels and even a wind turbine and power cars with renewable electricity.

Scientists at GE Global Research are now reaching beyond chargers. They have been building prototype vehicles using combinations of engines, fuel cells and batteries, including power GE’s next-generation Durathon battery.

To some, testing fuel cell and electric delivery trucks, buses, and hybrid locomotives may still seem far-fetched. But Bertha Benz knew that even a journey as mundane as a visit to one’s mother can launch a revolution.

Keywords: Innovation & Technology | EV | Electric Vehicle | Energy | Fuel | General Electric | Responsible Production & Consumption | road trip | transport

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