- Historic Sites
June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
In his later years he was such a portly, affable-looking man that it is difficult to imagine him being responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of young men. Nevertheless, this picturesque old fellow developed the first truly efficient machine gun, tirelessly promoted it to an indifferent Europe, and lived to see it change the course of modern warfare.
Hiram Stevens Maxim was born near Sangerville, Maine, in 1840. The eldest of eight children, he grew to be a tall, strong, handsome boy whose parents, one of his brothers ruefully remarked, thought him “the great King Bee of the world.” After less than five years of schooling, Maxim went to work for a carriage maker with the Dickensian name of Daniel Sweat, who made him put in a sixteen-hour day for a monthly wage of four dollars’ worth of trade at local stores. Though this grueling experience did nothing to temper his lifelong hatred for labor leaders, Maxim soon tired of it; he had found he was good with his hands, and he drifted around the Northeast and Canada, taking on various odd jobs and starting to tinker with inventions.
Eventually Maxim settled down in the Massachusetts engineering works of his uncle, an eccentric man who eventually fired him on the advice of a spiritualist. Though all but penniless, Maxim had learned much from his uncle, and soon found a good job as a draftsman for a company that manufactured illuminating gas machinery.
By 1878 he had made enough of a reputation to be appointed chief engineer of the United States Electric Lighting Company, the first operation of its kind in the country. He claimed to have developed the incandescent light, and was always disgusted that Thomas Edison got the credit.
In 1881 he went to Europe to exhibit some equipment at the Paris Exposition. While there, he met an American who told him, “Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable those Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.” Inspired by this exhortation, Maxim turned his attention to automatic weapons.
Though machine guns had been around for years, they were clumsy, hand-cranked affairs, unreliable and given to jamming. Maxim hit on the idea of using the force of the recoil to eject the spent cartridge and get the next bullet into the chamber. After the first round, the gun fired itself as long as the trigger was depressed. Maxim’s gun—“a daisy,” he called it triumphantly—could spray out two thousand rounds in three minutes. Its performance impressed British military observers, and they gave the inventor an order which allowed him to establish the Maxim Machine Gun Company in London.
Maxim soon found that it was one thing to build a machine gun and quite another to sell it. When he tried to peddle his weapon to the European powers, he discovered they preferred the Nordenfeldt machine gun.
Even by the standards of the 1880’s the Nordenfeldt was primitive, but its makers had one great commercial advantage: Basil Zaharoff, a mysterious East European who was the best arms salesman in the world. Suave, persuasive, and utterly ruthless, Zaharoff shadowed Maxim around Europe, telling would-be buyers that the superb new weapon was the work of “a Yankee … philosophical instrument maker” who painstakingly made each gun to measurements “of the utmost accuracy—one hundredth part of a millimeter here or there and it will not work. … Do you expect that you could get an army of Boston philosophical instrument makers to work them?”
When mellifluous lying failed, Zaharoff bribed officials to buy the Nordenfeldt; when bribery failed, he sabotaged Maxim’s guns on the eve of their demonstrations. Finally, Maxim merged with the Nordenfeldt Company, but even with the indefatigable Zaharoff now on his side, he found the going rough. Many countries were suspicious of the revolutionary weapon, and others simply didn’t care. One Turkish official waved Maxim aside saying, “Invent a new vice for us and we will receive you with open arms; that is what we want.”
Nevertheless, in the constant colonial wars of the era, Maxim’s gun began to make a name for itself. When British forces in the Sudan turned their Maxims on the dervishes at Omdurman in 1898, one correspondent said “a visible wave of death swept over the advancing host.” By the turn of the century the Maxim was renowned enough to figure in Hilaire Belloc’s famous couplet, which had a cool British official surveying a horde of angry natives and murmuring: “Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”
As the gun began to sell, Maxim devoted time to other experiments—notably some pioneering work in aviation—and to discrediting the efforts of other inventors. He was always fiercely jealous, and his autobiography, a singularly unappealing document, is a catalogue of minor grudges and petty triumphs. He took on his brother Hudson as a partner for a while, but soon became resentful of his inventive gifts. Hudson claimed that after he had returned to America, Hiram actually hired a representative to follow him there and interfere with his work. “He told me one time,” Hudson said years later, “that if the telescope hadn’t been invented he would have invented it; and I think he never felt kindly toward Galileo for having got ahead of him.”
In 1900 Maxim became a British subject, and the next year Queen Victoria acknowledged his service to her Empire by knighting him. Maxim’s genius became even more widely recognized when the First World War broke out in 1914. As the lines of trenches spread across Europe, the laggard powers studied their deadlocked armies and began to realize what a truly formidable weapon the machine gun was.
Maxim died in the winter of 1916, just as the battle of the Somme, the most stunning demonstration of his gun, was drawing to a close. He doubtless had heard of the three quarters of a million British soldiers killed, most of them by German machine guns—which had been manufactured under his patents since the 1890’s—but he had nothing to say about them. He had other concerns in his last years. He had rented a front room at the top of a building in a London business district, and there he spent hours blowing black beans out of a peashooter at a Salvation Army band that regularly played across the street.