Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim

The American-born British inventor Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (1840-1916) is chiefly known for the automatic rifle, or machine gun, that bears his name.

Hiram Stevens Maxim was born near Sangerville, Maine, on Feb. 5, 1840. He received only a common-school education while working on his father's farm, but he spent his spare time studying science. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a carriage builder and later worked in his uncle's engineering firm in Fitchburg, Mass.

Moving to Boston, Maxim was employed in a scientific instrument shop, during which time (1866) he received his first patent, for an improved curling iron. Soon he became a draftsman with a New York shipbuilding firm where he invented many items, including a locomotive headlight. In 1878 he was appointed chief engineer of the first electric lighting company in the United States, and he soon produced a new type of filament for an incandescent light (the Maxim lamp). Maxim represented the electric lighting company at the Paris Exposition of 1881, where he was honored for still another invention, his electric pressure regulator.

In 1881 Maxim took up residence in England. He began to experiment on ways to improve weapons and in 1883 developed an automatic gun based on an entirely new principle. It used the recoil of the gun to advance the cartridge belt automatically. The Maxim gun could fire 666 rounds a minute and wold not jam from hasty operation by its handler. At first Maxim produced the gun himself, but his company merged with the Nordenfeldt company in 1888 and with Vickers in 1896. The Maxim gun was adopted for use by armies all over the world. For this and other inventions, Maxim was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1901.

A gifted and versatile inventor, Maxim received 122 United States patents and 149 British patents. He devoted much time and money near the turn of the century to aeronautical experiments. An airship he built in 1894 to study the lift and thrust of various wing shapes and propellers actually rose from the ground, but he had not developed methods for controlling his machine in the air and did not achieve manned flight. He had, however, using an incredibly heavy, steam-propelled machine, proved that mechanical flight in heavier-than-air machines was possible.

Maxim was a brilliant, artistic, and accomplished man, although it was difficult for others to get along with him. He was opinionated and self-centered, and even his younger brother Hudson, also an inventor, found him impossible as a colleague. Twice married, Maxim had two children; his son, Hiram Percy Maxim, became well known as an inventor in his own right. Maxim died in Streatham, London, on Nov. 24, 1916.

Further Reading on Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim

The sources on Maxim's life are limited. The only relatively complete account is by Maxim himself, My Life (1915). But see also his brother's reminiscences in Clifton Johnson, ed., The Rise of an American Inventor: Hudson Maxim's Life Story (1927), and Hiram P. Maxim, A Genius in the Family: Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim through a Small Son's Eyes (1936). There is a critical account of the machine gun and its inventor in H. C. Engelbrecht and F. C. Hanighen, Merchants of Death (1934). For Maxim's aeronautical work see his own Artificial and Natural Flight (1908); R. P. Hearne, Airships in Peace and War (1910), which has an introduction by Maxim; and various histories of flight, such as Archibald Black, The Story of Flying (1940), and the illustrated American Heritage History of Flight (1962), by the editors of American Heritage.