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Path to machine gun's invention crossed Fitchburg.

Byline: Fred Sullivan

Early in March of 1991, I was explaining to my United States History class at Fitchburg High School their upcoming assignment, which would be a 10-page paper on a historical topic of their choice. During my explanation, I mentioned that students could select a topic from local history, or they could write a family history with solid historical content. This was something that all students tried to avoid.

Sitting in the back of the classroom, Geoffrey Maxim raised his hand and told me that he would like to give that a shot.

To say the least, I looked a bit askance, and somewhat sarcastically inquired about Geoffrey's project. He immediately told me that he would like to write about Hiram Maxim. Ignorantly, I asked who Hiram Maxim was, and would there be enough solid historical material to write a 10-page term paper.

Little did I know!

Hiram Maxim was born in 1840 in Sangerville, Maine.

At 14, Hiram was bound out to a local carriage-maker. While carrying out his duties, Hiram studied any scientific books that could get his hands upon and showed early on an ability to draw and paint and understand all types of tools.

As the Civil War approached, Hiram moved across the border to Montreal, Canada, where he continued working in the trades. During his time in the north, Hiram developed a few inventions, but nothing of great importance.

Returning to the states, Hiram decided to leave Maine and move to Fitchburg to work at an engineering firm for his uncle, Levi Stevens. It soon became very clear that the student had much more intelligence than his teacher, and Hiram began to have personality problems with his uncle. Mr. Stevens had a deep belief in spiritualism, which was a holdover from the strange religions of the 1840s, and Hiram, who had an acute sense of humor, made this a subject of ridicule. As this relationship began to deteriorate, Hiram was beginning to develop an automatic gas machine which he kept hidden from his uncle. An ensuing argument caused Levi Stevens to fire his nephew, and Hiram was soon on a railroad train heading for Boston. His days in Fitchburg were concluded.

In 1866 Hiram Maxim took out the first of over 200 patents, an improvement in irons for curling hair. But Hiram would move forward with his inventions, particularly in the field of machinery for generating illuminating gas. Remember, this is in the years before Thomas Edison's invention of the electric light bulb. In 1878 Hiram was appointed chief engineer of the United States Electric Co., the first of its kind in the United States. He turned his active imagination toward the incandescent carbon lamp and devised the method of "flashing" the filaments in a hydrocarbon so as to even them up by a deposit of carbon on the thinner places. This was a vital invention to the newly emerging lighting industry. In 1881 Hiram Maxim went to the Paris Exposition to exhibit one of his many inventions, and shortly thereafter moved to England. Maxim, with that New England mind, was the equal of any mechanic, and he could use no machine without trying to improve it. His inventions included an improved mouse trap, automatic sprinkling apparatus for extinguishing fires, and an inhaling apparatus for medicating the throat. But Hiram's international fame would come from his invention in 1883 of the Maxim gun, which completely altered warfare at the end of the 19th century and into World War I.

There had been earlier attempts to create a machine gun such as the Gatling gun, but the Maxim was the first efficient weapon of its class. It fired 11 shots a second from the single barrel, the loading, firing, extracting and ejecting of the cartridges being effected automatically by utilizing the recoil of the barrel as each shot was fired. Many subtle changes, particularly smokeless powder, would be made to the Maxim gun, but this 1883 invention became the killing machine of the Western Front in the Great War.

Before the 20th century, the Maxim gun extended the reach of Britain's empire by allowing battalions of British troops to destroy whole armies in Africa and India. The Sudan campaigns of 1896-1898 and the Battle of Omdurman in 1896 led to gun orders from around the world. For his efforts for the British Army in his adopted country, Hiram Maxim was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1901. The inventor became an English citizen in 1900.

Sir Hiram Maxim was not a perfect man by any means in his personal life. Early in the 1880s Hiram abandoned his first wife, Louisa Jane Budden, and his three children for another woman, Sarah Haynes. He had long-lasting fights with Thomas Edison and his brother, Hudson Maxim, over patent rights regarding certain inventions. In his later years his personal actions became quite erratic concerning religion and his attitudes toward individuals like lawyers and labor leaders, but there still was his native inventive genius.

Another area which revealed Hiram Maxim's creative genius was his involvement regarding man's attempts to fly. As early as 1889 he was experimenting with machines which could get off the ground. In 1894, nine years before the Wright Brothers, Maxim had a machine that was technically able to lift itself off the ground. Admittedly his use of a steam engine was impractical for flight, but his vision and inventions made Maxim truly unique.

His ideas and inventions could allow his supporters to say that Hiram Maxim possessed some of the same gifts of a Leonardo daVinci. He died in November 1916 well aware that his invention was killing the finest youth of Europe on the West Front. But one cannot deny that he was an inventive genius, and he passed through Fitchburg in the early years of his amazing life. So I guess that Geoffrey Maxim was absolutely correct in asking to write about his relative, Sir Hiram Maxim.

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Sir Hiram Maxim
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Feb 25, 2007
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