Today, we look within a great inventor and find a
little boy playing at war. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
At the end of the last
century the American inventor Hiram Maxim presented
himself to the police in Petersburg, Russia. He was
there to sell his new Maxim machine gun to the
"Your name is Hiram. You're Jewish," said the
"I am not. My people were puritans," said Maxim.
"Then what is your religion?"
"I never had need of one," Maxim snorted.
"Well, no one can stay in Russia without a
"Very well," Maxim replied, "Put me down as a
"And that," he tells us, "is how I became a
Now a Protestant, Maxim went on to
become a Sunday-school teacher. But meanwhile he sold
vast numbers of his guns to Russia. Russia soon went
to war with Japan, and, Maxim proudly tells us, "more
than half the Japanese killed in the late war were
killed with the little Maxim Gun."
Maxim was born in Maine in 1840. He was drawn to
invention early in life. He worked with gas
illumination, then electricity. He developed
electric lighting systems even before Edison.
In 1883 a friend told him, "Hang your electricity.
If you want to make your fortune, invent something
to help these fool Europeans kill each other more
Maxim took the advice. By 1885 he'd invented the
first single-barrel machine gun. This "Maxim Gun"
fired 666 rounds a minute, and it changed warfare.
The Russo-Japanese War was a storm warning of the
slaughter we'd see a decade later in WW-I.
The Maxim Guns (and nastier guns that followed)
made Maxim's name. They also gained him an English
knighthood. By then he was an English citizen and a
friend of royalty.
Early Maxim gun. From the 1888 Harper's
Yet guns were only another way-station for a very
fertile mind. In 1891 Maxim began work on a huge
flying machine. It was driven by two 180-horsepower
steam engines of his own design. It was a biplane
with a wingspan of over 100 feet.
He used restraining rails to keep the plane from
getting more than a few feet off the ground in test
runs. In 1894 the pilot did lift into the air
--then crashed and damaged the plane.
Maxim lost interest after that. Later he said he'd
been first to fly a man off the ground. He wished
he'd had one of the new internal combustion engines
and had built a smaller plane. Of course, that's
what the Wright brothers did nine years later.
One of Maxim's last inventions was an effective
bronchial inhaler. Critics took him to task for
leaving war machines to work on medical nostrums.
He was defensive about that.
For Maxim's whole life had been a vacant-lot war
game. For him, and the generals and princes he ran
with, war was no more real than becoming a
Protestant was. He was, to the end, a brilliant
little boy at play.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Maxim, H., My Life. London: Methuen
& Co., Ltd., 1915.
Angelucci, E., World Encyclopedia of Civil
Aircraft. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.
1982, pp. 38-40.
Hogg, I., The Weapons that Changed the
World. New York: Arbor House, 1986, pp.
For more on Maxim's airplane see Episode 210.
For a full size image
click on the thumbnail above
From the January, 1895, Century
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
From the January, 1895, Century
The steam boiler for Maxim's airplane
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