Sir Hiram Maxim

Sir Hiram Maxim
Sir Hiram Maxim
Sangersville, Maine
Death date
Associated organizations
Victors Ltd., United States Electric Lighting Company
Fields of study
Mechanical Engineering, Weapons Engineering
Decorated by French Government, Knighted by Queen Victoria in 1900


Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim was a prominent American-born British inventor who created a number of devices, and owned a multitude of patents. He is predominately known for inventing the Maxim Machine Gun, the first easily portable fully automatic weapon. [1]

Hiram Maxim was born 5 February 1840, in Sangersville, Maine. He was raised by his poor father who owned a sheep farm. Tending sheep through his childhood, Maxim's only education came from five years spent within a one-room schoolhouse. There he learned basic skills, such as reading and writing. At the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to a carriage maker. Working in a mouse infested mill, Maxim showed signs of ingenuity when he developed an automated mouse trap, a design that is still used today in common households. [2]

Following his service as an apprentice, he moved from job to job in search of places where he could apply his inventive mind. During the process, he created a silicate blackboard, and was able to successfully patent his first invention in 1866, the hair-curling iron. Maxim later invented a device that generates illuminating gas and locomotive headlights, and was hired as the chief engineer of the United States Electric Lighting Company. In the latter position he created a method of manufacturing carbon filaments. [3]

In 1881, he displayed an electric pressure regulator at the Paris Exposition, representing the United States Electric Lighting Company. Maxim was decorated by the French Government for his work with electricity and the invention of the electric pressure regulator.[4] While at the exhibition, a man told Maxim that if he wanted to make a fortune, he should invent a machine that would help the Europeans kill one another. Wanting to apply his skills, the suggestion stood with him. [5]

In that same year, he moved to England to represent the United States Electric Lighting Company to an English audience. Taking with him the advice that was given to him by the stranger, he began to take interest in weaponry, and developed a machine gun in 1884. [6]

A successor to Richard Jordan Gatling and his Gatling Gun, Maxim's machine gun differed in a few crucial ways. Where the Gating gun operated with ten barrels and a maximum fire rate of 1200 rounds per minute, Maxim's weapon was fired via a manual cranking mechanism. It aimed to harness the recoil power of each bullet, a force strong enough to eject the used cartridge and draw in another, and the design required only one barrel to fire all of its bullets automatically without the need to "crank" the weapon. He also developed his own smokeless powder, cordite, to minimize smog when firing. Additionally, the Maxim Machine Gun was far more mobile then the Gatling gun. [7]

In 1884, he founded the Maxim Gun Company in Britain to produce his new weapon, marketing it as a gun that fired by itself with the simple touch of a button. It was rebuked, and labeled incredulous. When Maxim offered his services to the U.S. War Department, they refused; they deemed it unworthy by U.S. military standards. Then Maxim demonstrated his weapon to the British, particularly to the English Royalty. Impressed by the demonstration, the British ordered Maxim's gun for Her Majesty's Royal Forces. Eventually, the Maxim Gun Company merged with Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Co. of England. [8]

Maxim successfully sold his weapon to the armed forces of the British Empire. However, there were many in the army of the high command who astounded by the invention but they could not foresee a practical use for it. It was used predominately to scare and impress other factions, including during the Matabele War of 1893-94. Eventually other European countries expressed interest in buying the machine gun, including Germany. His company was later absorbed into Victors Ltd., of which he became the director. The Victors machine gun, identical to the Maxim machine gun design, became the standard issue weapon of its type in the British army during the First World War. [9]

Throughout his career, Maxim received 122 United States patents and 149 British patent. Toward the end of his career, he devoted much of his time and energy to aeronautical experiments. In 1894, Maxim built an airship to study the lift and thrust of various wing shapes and propellers, but did not develop a method on controlling the craft. However, he did use an incredibly heavy, steam-propelled machine, proving that mechanical flight with heavy machinery was possible. [10]

Maxim used this design to create an amusement ride, the Captive Flying machine. The ride proved to be immensely popular in British fairgrounds. Maxim was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1900, confirming him as a royal subject. Hiram Maxim passed away on 24 November 1916, only days before the Battle of the Somme, where more than one million soldiers were killed during the course of four months, many by the Maxim machine gun. [11]