Maxim, Hiram

views updated

Maxim, Hiram (1840–1916), self‐taught engineer and inventor of the first automatic machine gun.Born in Maine, Maxim's early work focused on electrical design and the incandescent light bulb. In the early 1880s, he moved to London as representative of the U.S. Electric Lighting Company. As a sideline, he experimented with early machine guns. In 1885, Maxim developed a single‐barrel weapon that could fire 500 rounds of ammunition a minute. Although not the first machine gun, the Maxim gun, as it was called, remained vastly superior to the earlier multibarreled hand‐cranked Gatling gun (1862) and the Nordenfelt gun (1877). An avid promoter, Maxim effectively cultivated support from the British royal family and other influential Britons, which helped promote the adoption of the Maxim gun by the British army (1889) and the Royal Navy (1892). His company was consolidated with the Vickers Company in 1896. He became a British subject in 1900 and was knighted in 1901. His brother, Hudson Maxim (1853–1927), remained in the United States and developed a high explosive (Maximite). Despite the technical superiority of the Maxim gun, the U.S. Army resisted using it until 1904.

Neither Maxim nor most military men initially recognized the revolutionary impact the Maxim gun would have on the nature of battle. Although the machine gun would be used with deadly effectiveness by British imperial forces in suppressing colonial insurrections in Africa, few anticipated its extensive use in European warfare beginning in World War I.


Hiram S. Maxim , My Life, 1915.
John Ellis , The Social History of the Machine Gun, 1975.

G. Kurt Piehler