‘One 4.9 gun, one 3.4, and four maxims’

The matter-of-fact description of the weaponry aboard the Blitz, which Carruthers and Davies see on October 16 for the first time, includes the phrase ‘four maxims’. These days, the word ‘maxim’ is more associated with sleazy lad-mags, but in 1898 it had an altogether darker sense. A maxim is a machine-gun, named for its inventor, Sir Hiram Maxim.

Hiram Maxim with his invention
Hiram Maxim with his invention

The name ‘Oppenheimer’ still carries a good deal of freight, but on the grim matter of death statistics it is Maxim’s name which should be more memorable. Oppenheimer is credited, rightly or wrongly, with the atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. That bomb took 200,000 lives, with perhaps another 100,000 lives lost in the years afterwards as a result of the bombing.

Maxim’s invention was dramatically more vicious. It’s reckoned that 85% of all deaths in World War One were as a result of machine gun fire, which means that Maxim’s invention took almost a million souls during the battle of the Somme alone.

Hiram Maxim was born in Maine, USA, in 1840, and was an inveterate inventor from an early age. He held patents on a variety of instruments: a curling iron, coffee substitutes, a pocket menthol inhaler for bronchitis and asthmas (the world’s first) and a larger steam inhaler called, ironically enough given what came later, the Pipe of Peace. He installed the first electric lights in New York in 1870, and with nice symmetry also came up with the world’s first automatic sprinkler.

Caricature of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (1840-1916). Caption read "In the clouds". Leslie Ward [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Caricature of Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (1840-1916). Caption read “In the clouds”. Leslie Ward [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Maxim reportedly told a story of an encounter with an American acquaintance in Vienna in 1882. The story goes that his friend said: ‘Hang your chemistry and electricity! If you want to make a pile of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others’ throats with greater facility.’ Maxim did a good deal more than that. He invented a gun which used the energy of the recoil to power the loading of another round, creating a self-loading gun which could fire dozens, and later hundreds of rounds per minute. Hiram Maxim had, effectively, invented modern warfare.

Despite his grim legacy, Maxim’s life has an ebullient zest to it. He married his first wife, Jane Budden, in 1867 in America, marrying again (to Sarah Hayes) in 1881, though it is not quite clear whether he was legally divorced from Jane at the time. There was also an accusation from a woman called Helen Leighton that he had married her in 1878 while still married to Jane Budden. So, on the face of it, he may have been a double bigamist.

Maxim emigrated to England, becoming fully naturalised in 1900. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1900, though the ceremony was conducted by Edward VII following her death. He died in 1916, by then a pillar of the British establishment. He’s buried in West Norwood cemetery, in the same neighbourhood that I and NotCarruthers live. We visited his grave in a recent podcast. It’s a big square block of stone with no religious symbolism to it, as one would expect as Maxim was an avowed atheist (Oppenheimer also professed no religious beliefs, but was fascinated by eastern thought, and had his ashes cast on the waves after his death).

A final thought on Maxim. In 1890, he told his partners in machine gun manufacture the Vickers brothers that he would build a flying machine in the next five years. In 1894, at Baldwyn’s Park in Bexley on the edge of south-east London, Maxim demonstrated his massive Test Rig, a biplane powered by two steam enginers. For the purposes of the trial the plane was tethered to a metal track. However, such was the force generated by the Test Rig that the tether was ripped away from the track and the plane, supposedly, flew some 200 yards a few feet above the now-damaged track.


Did this happen the way it was described? It was, after all, nearly a decade before Kitty Hawk. But the Test-Rig never flew again. Perhaps that suggests it never, quite, flew in the way that was later described. But among the audience of dignitaries that day (which included the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII) was one Herbert George Wells. The year after that day in Baldwyn’s Park he began writing one of his most famous novels, The War of the Worlds, in which the Martians invade Earth with four types of specialised heavy machine: the fighting machine, the handling machine, the embankment machine and… the flying machine.





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