Sir Hiram Maxim: Maine Native, Inventor, Knight

by Tom Seymour

Hiram Maxim patented his automatic gun invention in 1884. Unthinkable at the time. His gun could fire over 600 rounds per minute just by squeezing the trigger. This was accomplished by utilizing the force of recoil from a fired round to eject the spent round, cock the firing mechanism, reload a new round and fire, all in a hair’s breadth of a second. It amounted to the biggest advancement ever in the history of firearms. Maine Historical Society Photo

Hiram Maxim was born in Sangerville, Maine, on February 5, 1840. Nothing about his situation as a child evidenced any sign that this backwoods Mainer would become world famous and even gain knighthood from the sovereigns of two different countries.

The young Maxim enjoyed humble, even modest surroundings. He tended sheep in summer and what formal schooling he had was from his five years of study in a one-room schoolhouse in his native Sangerville.

But Maxim had grit and determination and even more, a brilliant mind. He could conceive how physical things not yet devised might operate.

Maxim’s inventive genius came to fruition while working as an apprentice at Daniel Sweat’s carriage shop in Corinth, Maine. There, young Hiram brought to life an automatic mousetrap, a device that was quickly employed in a local gristmill, where it faithfully kept the mouse population at bay.

Hiram Maxim is credited with registering a lifetime total of 271 patents, most of them in the United States and a few in Britain. The list of Maxim’s inventions is long and it includes the carbon filament used in electric light bulbs, a flying machine run by steam (this device actually got off the ground, but was heavy and impractical), an indoor sprinkler system to put out fires, a bronchial inhaler for asthma sufferers, vacuum cleaning, pneumatic tires, a silicate blackboard, a curling iron, riveting machines, a number of gas, oil and steam-powered engines, a watch de-magnetizer, devices to keep ships from rolling at sea, a torpedo gun, coffee substitutes, smokeless powder and the Maxim automatic gun.

The first model of Maxim’s automatic gun fired 666 shots per minute, an ominous figure, considering its scriptural significance and also the dismal fact that his invention would eventually reap an immeasurable harvest in human lives on battlefields around the world.

Maxim had only begun his inventing career in Maine. His gift truly bloomed upon moving to Massachusetts, where he took work in a machine shop and foundry owned by an uncle. Here, young Hiram studied the various sciences, boning up on chemistry, metallurgy and other practical pursuits. This led to him moving to Boston, where he found factory work suitable to his talents. Soon later, he moved to New York, where he worked on the incandescent light bulb. Maxim and Thomas Edison vied for the title of inventor. Edison finally won, of course.

Then, in 1881, Hiram Maxim moved to England. There, he began work as an electrical engineer, in a day when few persons could claim such a title. In that same year, the Paris Electrical Exhibition and Congress paved his pathway to fame. The government of France made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in recognition of his method of creating a constant current to run any number of electric lights. This was Maxim’s first knighting. The next would be seem even more astounding.

Hiram Maxim in a photo dated c. 1914, but likely taken much earlier as he died in 1916 at the age of 76. Maxim was considered a brilliant and versatile inventor. Impossible to get along with is the way colleagues and family described. Library of Congress Photo

In recognition of Maxim’s growing fame, London newspapers began referring to him as, “The greatest electrician in the world.”

So why did Hiram Maxim move to Europe in the first place? Well, his inventions, his marvelous, modern devices became such frequent happenings that private industry could not keep up. That is, before a company could develop a market for a practical version of any one of Hiram Maxim’s inventions, the inventor was on to something else. Finally, a consortium of American companies pooled their resources and agreed to send Maxim to Europe for a 10-year stint, whereupon he was to keep his finger on the pulse of any new electrical invention and to report back to his backers in America.

Maxim received a yearly salary of $20,000, a fantastic figure for that time. His deal with the American companies contained a caveat, however. He was not to invent any new electrical device during the period of his contract.

So thus employed and thus restrained, Hiram Maxim began work on an automatic gun and patented his invention in 1884. His contract said nothing about inventing new forms of weaponry.

What Maxim brought to fruition was unthinkable at the time. His gun could fire over 600 rounds per minute just by squeezing the trigger. This was accomplished by utilizing the force of recoil from a fired round to eject the spent round, cock the firing mechanism, reload a new round and fire, all in a hair’s breadth of a second. Such a weapon was a major achievement and amounted to the biggest advancement ever in the history of firearms.

While Maxim guns and Maxim-based mechanisms would reign supreme on the battlefields of both the first and second World Wars as well as the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, the British military first embraced the automatic weapon during its African Matabele War. There, King Lobengula’s forces were armed with shields and spears. It was with such as these that the tribesmen flew, head-on, in the face of a mercenary army chartered by the British African Company and its contingent of seven Maxim guns.

The rapid-fire weaponry of the British mowed the African tribesmen down in windrows. This firmly established both the fame and the efficiency of the Maxim gun. But more was to come. The age of the Maxim gun had only just begun.

Soon after, in 1898, in the Sudan, British forces joined in an expedition against dissidents known as “Dervishes.” The Dervish forces managed to besiege the City of Khartoum, under the command of the famous and beloved British leader, “Chinese” Gordon. Gordon was killed and another eminent commander, General Sir Herbert Kitchner, called to right the wrong and bring the Sudan back into submission.

Regarding this endeavor, another British luminary, Winston S. Churchill, in his book, The River War, An Account Of The Reconquest Of The Sudan, mentioned the use of Maxim guns during the battle of Omdurman, the defining battle in the struggle for the Sudan, a number of times:
• “…it became the duty of the cavalry to clear the front as quickly as possible, and leave the further conduct of the debate to the infantry and the Maxim guns.”

• “The Maxim guns exhausted all the water in their jackets and several had to be refreshed from the water bottles of the Cameron Highlanders before they could go on with their deadly work.”

• “But at the critical moment the gunboat arrived on the scene and began suddenly to blaze and flame from Maxim guns, quick-firing guns…”

The next test of the Maxim gun came in 1898 during the Boer War, again in Africa, this time in South Africa. Oddly enough, England’s enemy, the Boers, began the fight using Maxim guns while the British contented with non-automatic weapons. Such was the temper of British army ordinance officials. But the 2 _- year duration of this struggle allowed for various arms dealers to peddle their wares, Maxim guns, to everyone involved and this served to cinch the ever-growing fame of Hiram Maxim’s invention.

Hiram Maxim, 1894, in the steam powered airplane he invented. The plane got off the ground, but the power to weight ratio of the steam engine was a bit off. Thirteen years before the Wright brothers, Maxim’s 3-1/2 ton, 110' wingspan aircraft was in it's scale, also about 40 years before Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose. French inventor Félix du Temple flew a steam powered aluminium Monoplane. His plane’s downhill run did not achieve level flight,  but was the first manned heavier-than-air powered flight in 1874. Library of Congress Photo

Hiram Maxim had, of course, promoted his automatic gun from the beginning. His Maxim Gun Company won worldwide accolades. Maxim put his new weapon on trial before heads of state across Europe. In 1900, Hiram Maxim from Sangerville, Maine, became a naturalized British citizen and in 1901 was knighted by Queen Victoria.

After the British wars in Africa, Maxim guns became known worldwide as the first choice of firearm for any serious military endeavor. And by the early 1900s, Maxim guns came in a variety of configurations, in various calibers and weights, some light enough for a two-man crew to carry, set up and fire with ease.

By the opening of World War I, both the Germans and the Allies were fully equipped with Maxim guns. These accounted for a fantastic slaughter, on a grand scale, of combatants on both sides. For this, Hiram Maxim became both famous and notorious for bringing his invention to the world stage.

And it was in the midst of the first war that Hiram Maxim died in his adopted hometown of Streathan, England, on November 24, 1916. Maxim was 77 at the time of his death.

A Knight Of The Realm and inventor extraordinaire, Hiram Maxim had his less-than-favorable side. He left behind in America a wife and two young daughters. He never saw any of them again. He appears to have had a visit with his son on a return trip to the United States. Then, Maxim attempted to lure his young son away from his forsaken family and to return to England with him. The son refused.

At about this time, Maxim was to answer a charge of bigamy, although these charges were not upheld in court. Still, these things leave a dark cloud over the memory of one of Maine’s famous sons.

It is fitting to recount how Germany ended hostilities on November 11, 1918. It was on the front before the forth Army. At two minutes before 11 a.m., a German gunner approximately 200 yards from the British line unloaded a complete magazine from his Maxim gun. The gunner then stood up, removed his helmet, bowed and slowly exited the scene.