#5 “An audacious fraud” and the first car road trip
There’s one regret I have. As a child, I never learned to play a sport the proper way. That is, from a coach, with disciplined training sessions. The few training sessions I did attend were for KhoKho when I was chosen to be part of the school’s team—an experience cut short thanks to a bruised knee. [Yes, khokho and kabaddi were our go-to sports in school]
Anyway, I decided to fix my regret by enrolling for tennis classes. In my mid-30s. It’s been fun, frustrating and a good reminder that it’s ok to suck at things no matter how hard you try.
On that note, onto some of my recent rabbit hole dives.
1876: “An audacious fraud”
The other day, we went for a drive to a hill called Makalidurga near Bangalore. One of the routes goes past a popular temple, then through a lovely winding set of roads. Usually, the journey is picturesque but uneventful. However, the last couple of times we’ve been on that trip, we’ve seen gangs of men rush to the middle of the road as soon as they see a vehicle approach. They’ll try to stop the car/bike, and demand money before you can proceed. It’s fee for the road, they say, and they’re equipped with a receipt book in their hands. I don’t know if they’re legit. But there’s something about the way they demand money—there’s always a bunch of them; they’re not in any uniform; there’s no sign anywhere, and they’re quite aggressive—that makes me not trust them.
You have probably seen some version of this. Unauthorised “parking attendants” collecting fees/toll for parking on certain roads and empty plots, always with a receipt book in their hands, in places where parking is either free or costs lower than what they ask for. They’re the “parking mafia” or “toll mafia”.
Turns out, we had toll mafia a long time back too.
I was hunting for something on the British Times of India archives, when I landed upon a short piece published in 1876. This story, which the writer called, “one of the most audacious frauds we have heard of” and the New York Times called “ingenious swindlers in India” took place in 1876 Bangalore.
Here's what happened.
In British Bangalore, four Indians and a European pensioner masterminded an illegal “private toll agency”. The agency set up five stations across the city, each with a number of “peons” with official-looking badges, wearing official-looking uniforms. They also displayed the toll “bye-laws” in a prominent place, which was dated 1st April. Entry and exit of both vehicles and animals were taxed. Pigs attracted the highest tax of two annas, while mules, bullocks, horses, and sheep were taxed at lower rates. All of these rates were displayed, like you see displayed at toll booths today, and toll receipts were given. Along with the rates, was this: “Anyone bringing the above articles should not make any bother, but read the pass and pay the money, and take the goods. If any disturbance be made with the peon, a fine of 10 (annas) or fifteen days’ imprisonment.” [I can’t make out what the currency is from the news cutting. If you know, please let me know?]
Everyone paid the toll without any questions asked. And this toll-gate continued for 15 days, which is when the local civil judge came to know of it. He then took action that led to the arrest of the fake agency folks, and their “boards, badges, rules, pens, ink, paper and passes.” It was suspected that the police were in on the conspiracy.
This is what the Time of India wrote then: “The Bangalore police must be sadly in want of a little reorganisation. The only explanation of their conduct appears to be that they were in collusion with the toll-gatherers. It would be absurd to suppose the latter could have collected their illegal dues day-after-day in half-a-dozen different parts of the town, without the matter coming to the knowledge of the guardians of the peace. It is one of the most audacious frauds we have heard of.”
Full text of the TOI news report:
Four natives, aided by a European pensioner and a boy, organized a system of tolls on native vehicles and animals entering the city, and regularly collected their tolls for days under the very noses of policemen who were probably in the plot. It is incredible that they were unaware of the existence of this private toll agency. We are informed that the conspirators “constituted themselves the Chief Inspectors of a Toll Establishment with five different stations, each presided by a Brahmin gomastah, assisted by a number of peons. Considerable pains and trouble seem to have been taken by these worthies to form this precious establishment, frame rules and get up the necessary badges for the peons. And in addition to this, an official looking seal, but being in fact the seal of ‘Contractor J. Birch’, was provided and, in short, no pains were spared to make the whole business as complete in its details as possible.” Sometimes they netted as much as thirty rupees a day. The natives acquised in the new “taccus” and paid it without a murmur, because it was collected by peons in official livery, who were in reality the servants of the rogues who started the conspiracy. The “bye laws” were displayed in a prominent place and curiously enough dated the 1st of April. The highest tax was on pigs, two annas. Mules, bullocks, horses, sheep and bandies were also taxed, but at lesser rates. Attached to the scale of tolls were the following remarks: - “Anyone bringing the above articles should not make any bother, but read the pass and pay the money, and take the goods. If any disturbance be made with the peon, a fine of ?10 or fifteen days’ imprisonment.” Toll receipts were regularly granted, and for nearly a fortnight nobody dreamed of questioning the legality of the toll-gatherers’ proceedings. At the end of that period, the Sudder Ameen was informed of the matter, and he took steps which led to the arrest of the conspirators, and their “boards, badges, rules, pens, ink, paper and passes.” The Bangalore police must be sadly in want of a little reorganisation. The only explanation of their conduct appears to be that they were in collusion with the toll-gatherers. It would be absurd to suppose the latter could have collected their illegal dues day-after-day in half-a-dozen different parts of the town, without the matter coming to the knowledge of the guardians of the peace. It is one of the most audacious frauds we have heard of.
First car road trip
I’ve not been very interested in cars beyond their practical use, which is to drive me from point A to B. But in my search for a safer car over the last year, I have developed a deeper appreciation for all that this machine can do. And since this appreciation is recent, I only now learned about the woman who was the first person ever to take an internal-combustion-engine-powered vehicle on a long road trip. The woman who changed the car game for good – Bertha Benz.
From what I’ve read, Bertha (born Bertha Ringer to wealthy parents), seems to have had an incredible mind. In 1872, she married Carl Benz, a German engineer/inventor and the Benz of Mercedes-Benz. If Carl Benz is hailed as the father of the car, Bertha is the mother. Bertha not only invested in the development of the first Motorwagen that Carl was designing, but also contributed to the design of the vehicles [including the brake lining material and introduction of the third gear]. She was also a marketing genius.
In 1886, Carl received a patent for his Benz Patent-Motorwagen. Despite financing the development and helping design the car, Bertha, it turns out, was not allowed to apply for the patent as a married woman at the time. In July that year, they unveiled Benz Patent-Motorwagen for the public. It had a single cylinder, rear-mounted engine, and three wheels, one in the front and two in the back. [You can spot the Patent Motorwagen in Enola Holmes on Netflix (around 11:50).]
The public demo of the car, which involved a short test drive where the driver lost control apparently, didn’t attract buyers, though. Bertha wanted to do more to publicize the car—but her husband seemed to have retreated to his factory following the lukewarm response.
So, she came up with a marketing plan. The story goes that in early August 1888, Bertha, along with her two teenage sons, snuck out a Patent-Motorwagen No. 3 from Carl’s factory, and started driving it toward Pforzheim in southwestern Germany, more than 100 km away, where her mother lived. Bertha was both the driver and the mechanic. When the fuel pipe was clogged, she used a hairpin to clear it. When the engine heated up, she used water from nearby streams or public houses to cool it down. The car also had no fuel tank. It could only hold 4.5 litres in the carburettor, so she had to find pharmacies that stocked ligroin, a petroleum product used then. In fact, the pharmacy at Wiesloch, where she found her first supply of ligroin on her journey, calls itself the first gas station in the world.
The long road trip was hardly easy. Most roads were made for horse carriages, not three-wheeled cars. The car also wasn’t powered enough to climb steep hills, so Bertha and her sons would have to get down and push the car on uphills. And downhills were heart-in-the-mouth experiences. In fact, when the brake shoes wore out rather quickly, she went to a cobbler and got him to cover the brake shoes with leather, ultimately inventing the brake lining.
Bertha hadn’t told Carl about her plan. She left a letter behind for him, and once she reached her mother’s place 12 hours later, she sent him a telegram. But Carl had been hearing of her journey from people in towns and villages who had seen her pass them by. On the way back, Bertha took a different route, demonstrating the car’s ability to many more people. People were both amazed and scared.
Bertha didn’t have any driving license—nobody, except her husband had received one. But all of that didn’t matter. She was focused on garnering publicity for their car, which she thought had huge potential, and she succeeded. What followed is Benz & Cie soon becoming the world’s largest automobile company. All thanks to Bertha, the badass.
There’s an official Bertha Benz Memorial Route in Germany, where you can follow her August 1888 journey across 194 km.
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