Article by Peter Koeppel, member of Trinity Memorial Church in Binghamton. Koeppel serves on the diocesan Stewardship Resources team and the diocesan Creation Care Initiative.
Who is the boldest person you personally know? When I look around me, when I listen to the news, when I read the Bible, there are so many examples of seemingly ordinary persons exhibiting courage far greater than they ever imagined they possessed. Those are extraordinary examples of courage for all of us, indeed. And then there’s boldness—exhibiting courage not because of a call to do something extraordinary, but simply because a challenge beckons. Here’s the story of one such bold person.
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in Bertha and Carl Benz’s home near Mannheim, Germany. Bertha was Carl’s wife, mother of their children, and she was Carl’s business partner, contributing her own inventions to the success of Carl’s motor car. Their name lives on to this day in Mercedes-Benz automobiles. A woman being a business partner in an engineering firm might have been unusual enough in the late 1800s; a woman participating in an engineering development was even less expected. Clearly, Bertha was a person to be reckoned with.
Here’s Bertha’s most impactful action: on August 5, 1888, without anybody’s permission, she took the third model of Carl’s motor car on a long distance trip from Mannheim, along the Rhine river to her birthplace, Pforzheim, in the very northern Black Forest. Carl hadn’t agreed to it, the local authorities hadn’t agreed to it. But she did so anyway, taking along their two sons. Let’s try to imagine: there were no fuel stations; roads were suited for horse-drawn coaches, and most likely nothing like the smooth roads we mostly have become accustomed to. There are quite a few hills along the way between those two cities. They covered about 65 miles one way on this trip.
Along the way, they had to get fuel for the car—in those days, the only place which sold the fuel the car required were drug stores (“Apotheke” in German). Oh, there were also no Google maps with indications where there would be drug stores along the way. At one point, the car’s fuel line clogged: Bertha unclogged it with a hat pin. When the car’s wooden brakes failed, she found a cobbler to cover them with leather, giving us the first lined brakes. When the ignition developed an electrical short, she used a garter to provide insulation. Not only did the trio have to find drug stores for refueling, they also needed to find and carry extra water for the car’s evaporative cooling system. On steep hills, the sons had to push the car uphill, leading Bertha to suggest to Carl that he add a short gear for hill climbs. They probably startled a good number of horses along their way.
What we don’t know for sure is to what extent Bertha instigated this long distance trip, and what part their sons had in that. It is thought that the sons, 13 and 15 at the time, were budding avid motorists, and might have convinced their mother to go on this trip. But what is obvious is that it took the boldness and resourcefulness of their mother to make this trip successful. This trip brought her and her husband’s business to the attention of a broader public, when it was, perhaps, on the point of business failure. She boldly did what she felt she had to do to lead the business she managed with her husband to commercial success.
Now, let’s switch to our times: many of us have an automobile; it’s likely extremely reliable compared to Carl’s car of 1888. Should it fail, AAA is a call away to help us; fuel stations are plentiful; mapping services can lead us to the next station if we ever run low on fuel.
Yet we face a turn of history almost as epochal as where Bertha Benz led us: she demonstrated that the self-driven motor car was capable of more than just neighborhood test drives. For us, that’s become a given. Our challenge is to remove fossil fuels from transportation. The most common objection to electric vehicles I hear, and I have wrestled with it myself, is how far we can drive an electric vehicle, before we have to find a charging station. How is this any different from what Bertha Benz dealt with? Do you think Bertha Benz had range anxiety? Somehow, I doubt it. She boldly saw a different future, and set her mind to pursuing it. Have we become so accustomed, not to say complacent, about our use of automobiles that we’re incapable of accepting a challenge far smaller than what Bertha Benz accepted? I pray not. Maybe the boldest person you personally know is your partner or spouse, maybe it’s you yourself—you just have to discover her!
Epilogue: right now, in 2022, for many of us living in in upstate NY, a plug-in hybrid car might work out well; they offer a purely electric driving range of somewhere around 40 miles per charge, charge overnight on household current, and when longer distances need to be covered, revert to hybrid operation, burning, admittedly, some fossil fuel. Still, for many of us this could prove a significant step towards an all-electric vehicle future. If you have more than one car in your family, perhaps one could be used for local travel, and be all electric, while another one could be a plug-in hybrid. Admittedly, that might cause you to have to step back from “your car”—“my car,” and take whatever car is suited better for the drive at hand, but isn’t that a small inconvenience compared to making a significant contribution to saving God’s creation?