The Man Behind the Killing Machine
In the spring of 1887, the emperor himself came out to the Steinfeld firing range a few kilometers from Vienna to watch the Austrian Army trials for rapid-firing weapons. Franz Joseph seemed particularly impressed by the performance of the Nordenfeldt model, a gleaming five-barreled rifle demonstrated by a team of two—one man feeding the cartridges, the second carefully cranking out 180 shots per minute. The day’s last entrant was a huge, bearded American—the inventor, salesman, and demonstrator of a small British firm’s only product: a squat, rather ugly gun. Dressed formally in top hat and morning coat, the American, Hiram Stevens Maxim, settled himself on a small seat on the rear leg of a curious tripod and grasped the handles of a black metal box from which protruded a single stubby, water-jacketed barrel. At the signal he opened fire. In thirty seconds 330 bullets stitched the emperor’s initials, FJ, on the target a hundred yards distant. The last of the .45-caliber rounds had barely slammed into the backdrop before Maxim stood up to bow toward the sovereign. The stunt delighted the emperor and astonished his officers.
Maxim’s device, which utilized the recoil of one cartridge’s detonation to load and fire the next, was the first true machine gun. Rival weapons like the American Gatling (1862), the French mitrailleuse (1867), and the AngloSwedish Nordenfeldt (1877) were crank-driven, their ammunition gravity-fed from a magazine set atop the rotating barrels. Their relatively meager rates of fire didn’t offset their extreme weights or the number of men required to operate them. And they jammed easily, sometimes because a gunner cranked too fast (a common reaction to a rush by the enemy), or because the cartridges did not fall uniformly into place, or because damp or old cartridges would hang fire, exploding just as the crank opened the breech. They also overheated so soon that the gunner periodically had to wait for his weapon to cool. By contrast, a belt of ammunition delivered shells smoothly to Maxim’s gun for as long as the single operator held down the trigger. To change belts, the gunner had only to thread the end of a new one into a slot. Since one cartridge had to fire before the next would advance, even a delayed explosion would not jam the mechanism. Water circulating in the casing around the barrel cooled it continuously but added little weight to the gun and tripod’s sixty pounds. The aircooled Uzi and Ingram submachine guns familiar to viewers of “Miami Vice” fire twelve hundred rounds per minute, almost twice as fast as Maxim’s first design, yet the principles of his prototype have remained the basis for the estimated one hundred million automatics built since. Maxim’s gun industrialized killing. It was superior to every weapon of his time.
Where securing lucrative defense contracts is concerned, of course, clear superiority is rarely the only consideration. To Maxim’s chagrin, the intrigues of Basil Zaharoff, the Nordenfeldt representative, earned the AngloSwedish competitor the sale after all. Maxim had perfected his weapon three years earlier and had been trying to sell it ever since. The U.S. Army turned it down on the ground that it fired so fast that supplying enough ammunition at the front would be impossible. At La Spezia, just before trials conducted by the Italian Navy, Zaharoff had gotten Maxim’s gunner too drunk to demonstrate the machine gun; at other tests the wily salesman had sabotaged the new gun’s breech or secretly substituted defective ammunition. If Maxim had invented a weapon that would revolutionize modern warfare, Zaharoff had practically invented the modern arms race. His strategy, illustrated by his scheme to unload Nordenfeldt’s crude, steam-powered submarine (1881), was simple: He sold one to the Greeks as a novelty, then two to the Turks as a counter to the Greek threat, then two more to the Greeks, and so on. Using such tactics, Zaharoff was to become notorious as the “mystery man of Europe,” the “Merchant of Death” who armed the Balkans.
Deciding that he was outclassed as an arms salesman, Maxim merged his company with Nordenfeldt’s the following year. The alliance lasted until 1896, when the British firm of Vickers bought out Maxim-Nordenfeldt. Zaharoff, whose services Vickers also acquired in the 1896 deal, was to make the machine gun a standard weapon in the arsenals of the world. After becoming a British citizen in 1900, the Maineborn Maxim was knighted by Queen Victoria in recognition of the gun’s service in the Sudan (1896-98) and at the Battle of Omdurman (1898). His gun also made Maxim wealthy. As has been the case with many inventors, however, his mechanical genius often outstripped his entrepreneurial abilities. In fact, in his autobiography he advised his readers against going into business if they could possibly avoid it.
At the same time, Maxim was a good deal shrewder than such statements indicated. Zaharoff was not his first resourceful rival, nor was Maxim himself commercially naive. He learned early to protect himself with patents. At his death in 1916 he still held 122 U.S. and 149 British patents. He also learned quickly that patents were “not respected by the majority of mankind as other property is” and that even holding a patent did not mean that he could profit from it; no one would manufacture Maxim’s automatic fire sprinkler until after his rights had expired. Nonetheless, Maxim was extremely successful in raising capital, an invaluable skill for a man who described himself as a “chronic inventor.” He did so by concentrating on three technologies—armaments, the electric light, and manned flight—that were glamorous and commercially attractive.
Much of Maxim’s life seemed to fulfill Yankee myth. Born on February 5, 1840, near Sangerville, Maine, in country that was still virtually wilderness, he received fewer than five years of formal schooling. From his father, a skilled carpenter and self-taught mechanic, and from various local artisans to whom he was apprenticed, he learned to work wood and metal. As a boy he built a chronometer, a spoked wheel for a tricycle, and—as if to establish his credentials as an inventor—a mousetrap. He took the usual odd jobs: carpenter, carriage maker, painter, contractor, prizefighter, and bartender. He was particularly suited to this last occupation because he did not drink and because his great strength could clear a bar of rowdy customers in minutes. Ironically, considering his pugnacious nature and the lethal character of his most famous invention, Maxim never saw a battle. He was exempted from Civil War conscription after two of his brothers had been killed in service.
In 1864 Maxim fetched up in Boston. Here he married Louisa Jane Budden, an English immigrant who regarded him at first as an uncouth bumpkin. To support his family—eventually to include two daughters and a son—he took what was supposed to be a steady job with his uncle, Levi Stevens, in nearby Fitchburg, Massachusetts. His brief sojourn with his uncle pointed up Maxim’s strengths and weaknesses as an employee and as an inventor-entrepreneur. Practical, imaginative, and versatile, Maxim solved problems quickly, but he had little patience for theory or precedent. Once he became interested, he could not distinguish the trivial from the important, and too often he would reinvent something that was already good enough—pneumatic tires, say, or coffee substitutes. Worse, he usually ignored the realities of management and manufacture. Levi Stevens forged automatic gas generators for domestic illumination. Hired as a draftsman, Maxim drew up plans for a much improved generator. Stevens had no sooner retooled his plant to produce it before his nephew improved the design again, insisting that they retool again. When he kept on altering the generator, Stevens fired him.
His skill led easily to other jobs, in Boston and then New York, all of them having to do with his favorite industries: gas and steam. He adored steam engines. He fabricated meters, pipes, valves, engines, vacuum pumps, carburetors, flywheels, governors, and burners. He built a twenty-one-foot steam launch, The Flirt, to take his son sailing on the Hudson River. In 1873 he went into business for himself, first in partnership with a man named Welch, then on his own, as the Maxim Gas Company, having persuaded A. T. Stewart, the department store magnate and wealthiest man in America, to back him. He lit with gas the post office in Manhattan, a resort in upstate Saratoga, and hotels in Atlanta. He made a gas locomotive headlight so bright that its beam soon flashed along every railroad track on the Eastern seaboard.
But Maxim realized that electrical lighting was inevitable. He began in 1876 to tinker with circuits, generators, and lamps. His sketches and models so impressed some New York financiers that in June 1878 they formed the United States Electric Lighting Company to market Maxim’s inventions. Several companies were already offering arc lights for streets, and the directors of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company wanted to enter the arc market. Maxim grudgingly complied, but he spent most of his time working on an incandescent bulb. Arc lights lit streets adequately but were unsuitable for interiors because the carbon rods burned with a dangerous flame, their intensity could not be adjusted, and the rods had to be replaced frequently. Talented inventors were racing to perfect a lamp that could replace the gas jet in homes and offices.
Maxim’s principles have remained the basis for all the millions of automatic guns since.
The competition intensified in 1877, when Thomas Edison, who had been busy trying to circumvent Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patents, entered the field. Edison paused for six months to invent the phonograph, then returned to experimenting with indoor lamps in 1878, applying for his first patent on a bulb on October 5, 1878. Maxim had applied the day before. The courts upheld Edison’s claim, triggering Maxim’s lifelong hatred of his rival. For his part, Edison would refer to Maxim as a pirate and later, when the chatter of machine guns opened the Great War, as a “death-dealer.” During the 1870s, beating Edison became an obsession for Maxim. He and his wife divorced. Louisa went back to Boston, there to enroll at MIT their twelve-yearold son, Hiram Percy Maxim, the future inventor of the silencer.
Despite domestic disruptions, Maxim made genuine progress. After testing platinum and other filaments for his electric light, he settled on carbon. Weak spots along the loop would burn through, so Maxim devised a “flashing” process—heating the filaments in hydrocarbon vapor—to deposit enough carbon to standardize the filaments to uniform diameters. Edison had to copy the patented technique, which brought Maxim perverse pleasure. Maxim also patented a pressure regulator to equalize the voltage to all the lamps in a circuit. Although he could not achieve a complete vacuum in the glass, his bulb worked. In the fall of 1880, six months after the Edison Electric Light Company had installed the first commercial lighting system, on the steamship Columbia, Maxim’s company electrically lit the first building in the United States, the Equitable Life Assurance Company, in New York.
His ungainly, steam-powered 1894 airplane crashed, but it showed flight was possible.
Even so, Maxim felt beleaguered. Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory bought up the entire American supply of phosphoric anhydride, which was essential for absorbing vapors before the glass bulbs could be sealed. A measure of Maxim’s genius was his immediate invention of a new and cheap chemical process to produce this compound. An equal measure of his desperation was his hiring of the Menlo Park glassblower to steal the secret of Edison’s hermetic vacuum.
Maxim later claimed that Edison’s patents rested wholly on the priority of minor variations. The differences, of course, were far more basic. Edison understood, as Maxim did not, the theoretical relationships among voltage, resistance, current, and energy loss in incandescent systems. Edison hit upon the right combination of high-resistance lamp filaments in a system of high voltage and low current, while Maxim used the same three-wire parallel circuits in conjunction with low-resistance filaments. Still more important, by concentrating on the lamp, Maxim had neglected the other components of the system, while Edison had worked simultaneously on the bulb, the dynamo, and the network that was to distribute the current to the lamps in the entire circuit. As the historian Daniel Boorstin has suggested, Edison grasped the social nature of lighting, and because he did, he could control its corporate application.
The directors of Maxim’s company brought in a new manager, Charles Flint, who quickly realized that U.S. Electric Lighting had no complete lighting system to offer its customers, that its patent position was shaky, and that it was saddled with a chief engineer driven by a personal vendetta. Flint’s first step, in 1880, was to buy the Weston Company in order to secure Edward Weston’s high-efficiency dynamo as the power source for a marketable system. His second was to send Maxim on an extended visit to Europe, ostensibly to have him buy foreign patents that could circumvent Edison’s but mostly to get rid of him. In exchange for his shares in U.S. Electric Lighting, Maxim was to receive royalties and a handsome salary, control of the new Maxim-Weston subsidiary in London, and the sole glory of a prize to be awarded the company at the Paris Electrical Exposition. Resentful but undaunted, Maxim chose to regard the exile as opportunity.
In 1881 Maxim married his second wife, Sarah Haynes, and sailed for Europe. He never again resided in the United States. In Paris the exposition devoted a full issue of its official journal to Maxim’s electrical achievements and awarded both him and Edison the Legion of Honor. For a year or so afterward, Maxim dutifully examined patents in Paris and Brussels and bought several for his former firm. The U.S. Electric Lighting Company strung Maxim lights on the new Brooklyn Bridge and, until taken over by Westinghouse, remained Edison’s only significant competitor.
Aware that his electrical career had ended, Maxim responded instantly to a casual remark by an American he met in Vienna. “Hang your chemistry and electricity!” the man said. “If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.” If investors in America had been caught up in the craze for electricity, European financiers seemed to be fascinated by armaments,with firms like Vickers, Krupp, and Schneider maneuvering for advantage. Journeying on to London at last to reorganize the Maxim-Weston plant, Maxim found the business a shambles, and rather than devote himself again to affairs he had put aside, he rented workrooms at Hatton Gardens and took up the automatic gun. If Edison’s electric light had been a social invention, Maxim’s gun would be an antisocial one, and the energy he lavished on it probably stemmed in part from a vague need to avenge his recent defeat.
He finished his drawings in the fall of 1882, then built the first working model in thirteen months. Back in 1854, he recalled, he and his father had sketched a Gatling type of weapon with a peculiar toggle to open and close the breech. Another version of the story maintained that the idea for the gun dated from the bear hunts of Maxim’s boyhood in Maine when he first realized that the recoil of heavy guns was wasted energy. Actually, more than anything else the machine gun resembled the kind of two-stroke steam engine that Maxim had made for years. The gunpowder served as the steam, the trigger as a valve gear, and the breechblock as a piston. The entire breechblock recoiled, thereby ejecting the spent shell and advancing the next cartridge. The energy of the recoil not immediately used for those movements was stored in a spring, which snapped the block back into place, locking the breech and firing the inserted round. The crucial features were a toggle that both hinged and pivoted to lock and unlock the bolt and a lever, called an accelerator, that transferred the energy of the recoiling breech to the bolt, slamming it back against the spring.
Machining the toggle and accelerator to precision proved at first beyond the capabilities of British workmen. For all its simplicity, Maxim’s gun contained 280 interchangeable parts, most of which had to be cut to a tolerance not yet standard in England. Maxim wired his brother Hudson in America to hire several Yankee mechanics and to catch the first boat. In the meantime, Maxim himself took out his first patents and formed the Maxim Gun Company with five partners, two of them the Vickers brothers, with a capital of fifty thousand pounds. Hudson Maxim tooled up the assembly line at Crayford, in Kent.
Between 1883 and 1895 Hiram Maxim took out more than a dozen British patents on the gun, for all possible variations on the recoil principle. This time he would hold the commanding position of an Edison, as insurance against the imitators to follow. He applied for patents in every country he could, taking out dozens in the United States alone. In subsequent refinements Maxim rifled the barrel and chambered it for .303 ammunition, added the water jacket, reduced the weight by using nickel steel, and perfected a universal mounting joint that was admired almost as much as the gun itself. The field manual his brother Hudson wrote claimed that the gun could be mounted on virtually anything from boats to bicycles. That section was revised when a foolish lieutenant strapped one securely on the back of a mule and set the trigger on full automatic.
To improve the gun further, the Maxim brothers collaborated on the compounding of a smokeless powder. Black powder not only threw off clouds of smoke that gave away the machine gun’s position but left a residue that clogged the barrel, and it ignited too slowly to provide the velocities that Hiram Maxim wanted in his ammunition. The brothers combined nitroglycerin and guncotton, using castor oil as a binder, and rolled the pulp into thin, hollow tubes that when pulverized would be “perforated” with air spaces for rapid combustion. British courts later recognized the mixture as the first true cordite. The two brothers fell out over credit for the powder, and Hudson returned to the United States, where he invented high explosives, which he sold to Du Pont. The Maxim brothers never spoke to each other again.
Distinguished guests crowded Maxim’s factory and the South Kensington Inventions Exhibition hall where he demonstrated the gun during the summer of 1885. It was fun to watch, so small that it seemed harmless. Lord Wolseley, head of the War Ministry, asked if Maxim could build one a little larger. A trifle annoyed, Maxim replied that a larger gun would not kill a man any faster, but he built another version anyway, a cross between a rifle and a cannon. It fired 37-mm (one-pound) explosive shells almost as fast as the first gun. Maxim, doubly annoyed when the government declined to purchase it, sold it instead to the Boers of South Africa. There the tribesmen against whom it was used named it the pompom. Most observers seemed more appalled at the cost of the ammunition than at its deadliness. The king of Denmark, watching the belts whir through the pom-pom, said, “That gun would bankrupt my kingdom in two hours.”
Conservative military minds did not quite grasp that Maxim’s machine gun did not merely kill but slaughtered. Until the turn of the century, the bodies Maxim’s gun piled up were those of colonial rebels in Africa, India, and Egypt, not highly trained European troops. When more than half the Japanese casualties in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 were attributed to the Russians’ Maxims, the German Army began to stockpile machine guns. The gun was highly mobile, presented a small target, and did not need the broad front required for artillery.
By 1914, when World War I broke out, the Germans had 12,500 machine guns; at the armistice they had 100,000. Even though the British army had officially adopted the Maxim in 1891 (the U.S. Army waited until 1915), the weapon’s terror became real only when the king’s troops faced multiple gun emplacements in war. That happened at Gallipolli. When British troops went ashore in the Dardanelles, they came under fire from the machine guns sold to the Turks by Zaharoff. The British commanding general called the gun “an instrument of the devil.”
The “devil” had never tried to disguise the weapon’s destructive power. “Only a barbarian would send his men to certain death from my machine gun,” said Maxim, but the warning was ignored. Indeed, the British press played word games with the new celebrity’s alleged wisdom. Because of his chronic bronchitis, Maxim spent a part of every year at Monte Carlo, where the gambling in the famous casino distressed him. When he wrote a letter to the editor of the Paris Tribune pointing out that the laws of probability gave the casino at least a ten to one advantage over the roulette player, the Pall Mall Gazette offered this verse:
Maxim’s mathematics persuaded Zaharoff though. He bought the casino.
Soon after the merger with Nordenfeldt, Maxim reverted to his old habits. Far from taking charge of the business, he found time only for new inventions: an aerial torpedo, an electrical system for training heavy guns, a delayedaction fuse. Maxim-Nordenfeldt lost £21,000 in 1894, £13,000 in 1895. The next year Vickers bought out Maxim and the other shareholders, and the Maxim subsidiary under Vickers’s management made a profit of £138,000. Moreover, in buying out Maxim, they had acquired the rights not only to the machine gun but also to one of the world’s first airplanes.
In one of his more ebullient moods, Maxim had predicted that one day aircraft would fly over the fabled British fleet to bomb London. Soon after, government representatives, charmed by the legend that the Yankee could invent anything, offered to finance an aircraft if Maxim would build it. He first conducted some classic tests of propeller shape, size, and pitch, using dynamometers and tachometers of his own design. Then he erected a huge steampowered rotating arm for testing wing configurations, realized that he had invented a new kind of merry-goround, and wasted months setting up a company to lease it to amusement parks, only to have the whole scheme dissolve into litigation.
Back on course by the end of 1891, he constructed a gigantic hangar at Baldwyn’s Park, Kent. From inside it he ran five hundred yards of nine-foot-gauge railroad track. On the outside of these rails he laid a second set of tracks thirty-five feet apart, as runners raised off the ground. The body of the craft, a sledge of white pine, was mounted on railroad-car wheels that ran along the inside tracks. Underneath the wings- the “aeroplanes”—were other wheels that gripped the runners of the outside track from underneath so that the craft could rise only a few feet. Powering the ship were two of the finest steam engines that Maxim ever built, radical compound designs weighing only six pounds per horsepower. They sat amidships on the sledge, geared to two eighteen-foot propellers with a thrust of two thousand pounds; a modified Thornycroft boiler and oil burners were sat forward in the nose. Overall the biplane was 126 feet long, its fabric-covered wings were 104 feet from tip to tip, and its frame was 36 feet high. The total weight was three and one-half tons.
Cronies like Lord Kelvin and the duke of Cambridge shed hats and coats to ride with Maxim on early trials as the inventor adjusted his engines, whistling down the track at twenty or thirty miles an hour. A dozen workers tested and redesigned the plane for months. The final trial took place on July 31, 1894, with Maxim and two passengers on board. The aircraft rose off the ground, held by the guide rails, for six hundred feet, until one of the restraining wheels snagged. The crash shattered the props and the frame.
Although Maxim characteristically claimed that all subsequent aircraft utilized his principles, historians still debate the merits of his accomplishment. Critics hold that because Maxim concentrated on power, thrust, and lift at the expense of structural strength, stability, and control, his contributions to the evolution of manned flight were small. Others point out that his machine really flew and that at the very least it demonstrated almost a decade before the Wright brothers that powered flight by heavy craft was possible.
Despite the twenty thousand pounds he had spent and despite pleas from Vickers, Maxim refused to rebuild the plane. The firm kept prodding, however, until he constructed an entirely new model driven by an internal-combustion engine in 1910. It never flew, and a year later his displeased fellow directors forced his retirement and changed the name of the firm from Vickers, Sons and Maxim to Vickers Ltd. Nevertheless, when Vickers finally did construct its first successful plane in 1914—the ancestor of the Spitfire that would win the Battle of Britain predicted by Maxim—the fighter was armed with a Maxim machine gun.
Free now of all the ceremonial duties for royal commissions and societies but still too energetic to lose himself among his wife’s chickens and flowers at their estate in West Norwood, Sir Hiram returned to his beloved steam engines. He designed a primitive sonar system using steam. He also invented a steam inhaler to help those like himself suffering from bronchitis. An acquaintance promptly accused him of “prostituting his talents on quack nostrums” and said that the medical device had “ruined his reputation absolutely.” On the last page of his autobiography, Maxim decided that he would just have to “stand the disgrace.” To his credit, he never tried to justify his gun and never referred to it as anything but a killing machine. As the wry remark indicates, he accepted responsibility for what he had invented. Still, he must have been stunned by the astronomical numbers his gun began to kill.
He never tried to justify his gun and never called it anything but a killing machine.
Perhaps that explains his decline into an eccentricity that was extreme even by British standards. Always an agnostic, he published in 1913 an attack on established religion that charged clerics with promoting belief in ghosts. A few months later, when he was arrested for pelting Salvation Army workers with a peashooter, his influential friends hushed up the matter. Even at his most cantankerous, Sir Hiram was still good company, especially to those drawn by the magic of a mind so deft at technologies both benign and sinister. But history has not been so forgiving. The more automatic weapons proliferate, the less we remember their inventor. When Maxim died, in 1916, only a few British and American newspapers carried his obituary. There were millions of other deaths to report, most of them caused by his machine gun.
Joseph W. Slade is chairman of the Department of Media Arts at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. He is writing a book on the Maxim family of inventors.