As primitive as it looks, the Benz Motorwagen nonetheless incorporated the first automotive safety system. Picture: Veritasium

Stuttgart, Germany - In this Mercedes Benz-sponsored Veritasium educational video pop scientist Derek Muller takes a look the history of safety systems on cars, starting with Karl Benz’ three-wheeled Patent Motorwagen of 1886, generally regarded as the first true automobile.

Although the Motorwagen was built as a proof of concept prototype, to demonstrate that a carriage could indeed be propelled by an internal combustion engine, and was never intended to be used on the road, Benz’ wife Bertha eventually became impatient with his eternal tinkering in their backyard workshop in Mannheim.

In August 1888 she took the Motorwagen, without his knowledge or permission, and drove it 106 kilometres to visit her mother in Pforzheim - and back - thus becoming the very first person to drive a motor vehicle over a significant distance and proving that Karl’s Motorwagen was a practicable mode of transport and that horsepower would henceforth come in liquid form.

Bertha Benz - pioneer, entrepreneur, businesswoman, badass. Picture: Klim Biz

What’s significant in this context was that the Motorwagen incorporated the very first safety system - a battery-powered electrical ignition system that used a tiny spark to ignite a mixture of air and liquid stain-remover in its single cylinder.

Previous attempts at building liquid-fuelled internal combustion engines had relied on a platinum tube with one end poking into the combustion chamber and the other end sticking out into the air. The outside end was heated with a naked blowtorch until it was red hot, in the hope that when the mixture in the cylinder was compressed to a certain degree, it would be ignited by the other end of the glowing ‘hot tube’ - an ignition system even more random and dangerous than it sounds.

Without the Motorwagen’s new-fangled, state of the art electrical ignition system Bertha Benz’ historic road trip would have been impossibly dangerous.

Ten times faster 

Within half a century there were production cars available for the road that could travel 10 times faster than the Motorwagen’s top speed of 16km/h; crashes were becoming deadlier and more frequent, and the development of active and passive safety systems became an integral facet of car design.

This video, not surprisingly, focuses on the part played by Mercedes-Benz in that development, ignoring the pioneering role played by Volvo, Saab and General Motors.

It’s nevertheless a fascinating glimpse into the increasing role of safety systems in car design over the years, as we stand on the threshold of an era where the cars themselves will be responsible for the safety of their occupants, rather than their drivers - if indeed they have drivers at all. We can’t help wondering what free-spirited Bertha Benz would have made of that.

IOL Motoring