Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Hiram Stevens Maxim, A "Down-East" Yankee who Dictates Peace to the Nations

HIRAM STEVENS MAXIM is a gunmaker and peacemaker, and to-day the terms are synonymous.

Two armed men, although hostile, will hesitate to attack one another; each will be careful to make no false move, lest the other's hand fly to his pistol pocket. Neither knows the other's equipment for aggression or defense. So both will smile and smile, and continue to hate.

It is often thus with nations.

When I asked Mr. Maxim how one feels to be in the business of making machines of war, —machines for killing men by the brigade, so to speak, he replied: — "Men of my profession do more to keep peace on earth than all the churches of Christendom. They beg for peace, —we compel it."

Almost all famous men have two sides; the one is seen by the world, which never really sees the man at all, and is cold and glazed and more or less characterless, — being wholly intellectual. The other is the warm human side, full of points of strength and lovable weaknesses.


Hiram S. Maxim is of this type. Mention his name to your neighbor, and he will say : "Oh, yes! Maxim, —he's the inventor of the rapid-fire gun, the flying machine, and smokeless powder, and a lot of other things." That's all he knows about him, and, very likely, it's all he cares. But the name Maxim is of tremendous import to every nation in the world; it is liable to have a potential influence in changing some of their boundaries, too. China had a good supply of rapid-fire guns when the war broke out between her and Japan, but the brass parts had all been stolen by traitorous Celestials, and the instruments left unfit for use. Otherwise, the results might have been different, —who can tell?

But let us look at the man as the public sees him.

Weigh the significance of his list of titles: Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, honorary member of the Bridgeport Scientific Society, member of the Royal Society of Arts, of the English Society of Mechanical Engineers, of the English Society of Electrical Engineers, of the English Society of Junior Engineers, of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, of the British Empire League, of the Decimal Society, of the British yEronautical Society, of the London Chamber of Commerce, and also recipient of decorations from the Emperor of China and several European sovereigns.


Mr. Maxim was the first man in the world to make an automatic gun; that is, a gun that loads and fires itself by its own reactionary force. He was also the first to combine gun-cotton and nitro-glycerine in a smokeless powder. The practicability of his flying machine is yet to be proved.

Such is Maxim, the ghost of whose presence appears to bellicose rulers and bids them halt, —and they do halt. It is said that the British Government and Hiram S. Maxim are two of the world's most powerful influences for peace.

Next consider the human being, —the big, brown-eyed, white-bearded man, over sixty years young, — for he was born in Maine, in 1840.

He seems to me to be a man with two ambitions: primarily, to keep on inventing, and, secondarily, to be the most famous inventor of all ages. His intellect and energy demand progress, his vanity demands fame.

He doesn't appear to care for money, save as a means to a desired end. His personality might be considered unbalanced. His sense of self-suppression does not correspond with his fairly colossal intellect. The character of his intellectuality is uniform. The philosophical rather than the scholarly instinct dominates it. Another evidence of his quality of humanity is his sensitiveness to unfair censure. "I don't fear truthful criticism," he once said; "misrepresentation is what hurts." It is difficult for one who knows him to imagine anything which he could not master. I once asked him the question, and he said he believed he would have succeeded at anything, except as a clergyman or a physician; that his religious views would preclude the former, and that he had a distaste for the latter.


At the age of fourteen young Maxim left school, and became apprenticed to a carriage-builder, although he had previously learned the use of tools in his father's mill. He was a stockily built lad, and was noted for his physical strength and daring. His father was not an ardent advocate of "turn the other cheek" policy. On the contrary, he used to say: "If any one assails you, sail into him." Once Hiram's father promised to bring him a present if he would be good. The little fellow, then six years old, looked forward to the fulfilment with impatience. At length, the elder Maxim, returning from the village, brought a puppy as a playmate for his little son. Hiram regarded the animal with amazement for a few moments; then, bursting into tears, he rushed to hide his face in his mother's lap, exclaiming: "I am afraid of it, it looks so much like a dog." The two finally became great friends. One day the dog bit Hiram, and the lad asked his father what he ought to do under the circumstances. "Bite him back," was the verdict. In pursuit of this suggestion, the lad examined the dog and concluded that the end of his tail was about the most vulnerable point. Accordingly, he took that member between his teeth and began to put on pressure, raising the dog from the ground, in order to swing him once or twice. All the while the lad had tears in his eyes, for he loved his little play-fellow; but, with true Puritanical instinct, he deemed the chastisement just and necessary. The dog, however, did not join him in this view of the matter, and, in an attempt to escape, carried away one of his young master's upper front teeth. It is also said that one of Hiram's young brothers, in pursuit of this policy of retaliation, almost decapitated the family goose, which they were saving up for Christmas, which had savagely attacked the calf of the youngster's leg.

It is easier to give Mr. Maxim's manner of speech than his manner of speaking. He has wonderful brown eyes, —very honest eyes, —that stare at you inquiringly as he talks, and an extremely gentle voice of an almost hypnotic quality, —very attractive and soothing. Marvelously quick-witted himself, he has little patience with dullness in others. His power of explanation, too, is very great. He always uses language and methods according to the understanding of the listener. With a scientific man, he employs forms of speech that convey much in little, while to the ordinary layman he expresses himself in popular English.

"To what do you attribute your early success?" Mr. Maxim was asked.

"In the first place, I was a very large and strong boy, and, no matter where I worked, I always succeeded in doing more than any other man or boy in the shop. I was never absent from work or school."


The development of his physical strength kept pace with that of his intellect. When he was thirty-five, he was manager of a large manufactory in Brooklyn. One day a herculean Irishman, who had long been ambitious to have a trial of strength with "the boss," asked the latter how it was that the Irish were so much stronger than the Americans.

"How much can you lift ?" asked Mr. Maxim, quietly.

"Six hundred pounds," replied Pat.

"And how much do you weigh?"

"Two hundred pounds."

"Well," said Maxim, "I will lift you and your load together," and he did it.


On another occasion, while taking lunch at a railroad station in France, Mr. Maxim recognized a notorious confidence man who had, years before, robbed him in Paris. The fellow, seeing that he was detected, tried to escape by leaping upon a moving train. Maxim followed and a fierce struggle ensued on the footboard of the coach, while the train was running at a high speed. Maxim had to fight both the fellow and his comrades, but he subjugated his man. The train was brought to a standstill, and the victor marched his prisoner back over the ties to the station, delivering him to the authorities, and subsequently had the satisfaction of seeing him sentenced to several years at hard labor. This was one result of the backwoods training in Maine.

"Whatever job I was at," Mr. Maxim told me, "I used to work at and think of day and night. I talked shop in season and out. If I was given work that was not good enough for me, I would do it so well and so quickly that they thought I was worthy of something better. No matter where I was, I managed, somehow, to get to the top. I noticed, the first thing, that the majority of the men around me were poor and the few rich; and I knew, of course, that the methods of the former were wrong, and that, consequently, the way to succeed was to follow the latter."

"When did you first begin to invent?"

"Almost before I learned to walk. When I went to work, I began to study out ways of improving tools and appliances."


"What were your first practical inventions?"

'In 1862-63 I was at work at Fitchburg, Massachusetts, making gas machines. I made various improvements at that time, which afterward came into general use. From Fitchburg I went to Boston, where I entered the service of Oliver P. Drake, who was not only a gas-machine maker, but also a philosophical-instrument maker. I first worked as a draughtsman, and then became his foreman. I learned from Mr. Drake many things that were useful to me in after life. From Boston I came to New York, where I obtained a situation as draughtsman at the Novelty Iron Works, East Twelfth street. At that time they were building the Pacific Mail steamers. Shortly after this, I thought of a new system of making gas from gasoline. All the machines that had existed would maintain only one hundred lights or less, and the density and illuminating power of the gas varied so much as to make the lights very unsatisfactory. I decided to make a machine that would make the gas, from first to last, of an equal density. I made this machine and patented it. It was intended for large consumers, and several were purchased by A. T. Stewart & Company. One of them was in the Park Avenue Hotel, and, for a time, another was used in the Post Office in New York City. I also made a very large machine, the biggest ever made, for the Grand Union and several other hotels at Saratoga which belonged to A. T. Stewart. From gas machines I turned my attention to small steam motors, and had a place in Centre street, which is still in existence, my successors being Messrs. Welch and Lawson, 205 Centre street. I soon began to experiment with electricity, and was the first man to file at the Patent Office an invention for building up and preserving the carbons of incandescent lamps, by the action of hydro-carbon vapors. I lost this patent, however, by a system of fraud, which I will not describe to-day. I was the first man to make an electrical regulator, and exhibited it at the Paris Exposition in 1881, and was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. I secured many patents on electrical inventions from 1880 to 1885. I next experimented with automatic firearms."


"How did you come to invent the automatic gun?"

"Many years ago, while firing at a target with a military musket, I was much surprised at the force of the recoil. It appeared to me that this waste of energy might be profitably employed in loading and firing the weapon, but it was not until I went to Europe and found myself in Paris with insufficient work to keep me fully employed, that I tried to make an automatic gun. I first made a drawing, which I afterward took to London; and, having obtained and equipped a small factory there, I commenced experiments with the view of evolving a gun which would load and fire itself. There were no data to refer to. No one had ever before spent a single cent in experimenting with automatic guns. I first thought of employing the recoil to working existing forms of mechanism, but found that impracticable. I then designed and constructed a totally new machine and a totally new system of feeding.

"In the spring of 1884, I constructed the first apparatus ever made in which the recoil of one cartridge would load another cartridge into the barrel and fire it. This is now in the South Kensington Museum, in London, labeled: 'This apparatus loads and fires itself, by force of its own recoil, and is the first machine ever made in which energy from the burning powder is employed for loading and firing the arm.'

"When I made my first gun and found that it would really load and fire itself, I knew it would have a great future. A few friends came in to see it. They told others, and very soon a great number of people came to see the new wonder. In fact, everybody, from the Prince of Wales down, came to see the gun and fire it. No less than two hundred thousand rounds of ammunition were used in explaining the gun and showing it to visitors. At first, no one would believe that an automatic gun had really been made. No one was prepared to believe, without seeing it. In fact, I may say that they were unable to understand that the gun actually loaded and fired itself. It was considered a nine days' wonder. The English Government was the first to give an order. It asked for a gun which would not weigh over one hundred pounds, and would fire four hundred rounds per minute. I made one that weighed forty pounds and fired two thousand rounds in three minutes, with one pull of the trigger. This is a result that no one else has ever attained, I showed my gun to Lord Wolseley at Hythe, where I fired at a target. That leader and Colonel Tongue were standing by the gun while I was firing it. I heard the latter say that it was the best firing that had ever been seen; that the accuracy was much better than had ever been known before; and that the rapidity of fire was without parallel. Everyone seemed astonished, and it was then that Lord Wolseley approached me and said: 'Mr. Maxim, I have seen your gun. It is simply wonderful. It is the most remarkable invention I ever saw in my life, and I congratulate you heartily upon your success; 'but,' he continued, 'it is of no good, as you will observe that the cloud of smoke is very large indeed. Unless you can get smokeless powder, I am afraid your gun will be of little use.' It was then that I began to think in earnest about smokeless powder, one of the directors having said that I was just the man to invent it. When I told him that I was not a chemist at all, as compared with Professors Fred. Adel and Dewar, his reply was : 'You know all the chemistry that is necessary in the matter, and, moreover, you have an imagination, and the others have not. If you take the matter up, I am sure you will go ahead of them.'


"Such was really the case, because I find that my application for a patent for a smokeless powder, consisting of nitro-glycerine and gun cotton, was filed at the patent office about fourteen days ahead of any other, and Sir Richard Webster, in speaking for the government in the celebrated case of Nobel against the Government on smokeless powder, said : 'H. S. Maxim is the first man to make a smokeless powder with nitroglycerine and gun cotton. This powder was taken out to the States as much as eight or nine years ago, shown at Springfield, and put into competition with all other forms; and, according to the printed reports of the time, it was said to be superior to all others at all points, and I may say that the powder has not been improved on to any extent, as all the leading powders of to-day are practically the same as that invented by him at that 'time.'

"I was the first man to show a thoroughly good smokeless powder in the United States. Having succeeded in England, I took my guns abroad. Switzerland was the first country where I had a competitive trial with other makers. I was asked to fire at a dummy battery of artillery, at thirteen hundred yards, for one minute; but, as a matter of fact, I was only engaged half a minute in actual firing, when it was telephoned that I had technically killed three-fourths of the men and horses. I thought, perhaps, that I ought to have killed the whole of them, but the general said with great enthusiasm: 'No gun ever made has ever done anything like that. It is the most marvelous thing that has ever been done. It is simply amazing. A little gun weighing only fifty pounds puts a battery of artillery out of action in half a minute, at thirteen hundred yards.'

"I next took the gun to Italy, where I won another victory, and then returned to England. I received very large orders from all these countries, and the gun is now in use, I may say, nearly all over the world. These guns are being made not only by our own company, which has many factories in England, but by the British Government, by Ludwig Loewe, of Berlin; by Krupp, by Armstrong and by the United States Government at Washington. The company with which I am connected is a very large one, and we make about sixty varieties of rapid-firing and automatic guns. We are also makers of very large guns, builders of battleships, etc. I have also made guns for flying aerial torpedoes, by the use of compressed air and gas. About ten years ago I conducted a series of experiments at Baldwin Park, Bexley, England, with a view of ascertaining how much power is required to perform artificial flight. These experiments were on a much larger scale than had ever been attempted before, and excited a great deal of interest in the scientific world. Lord Kelvin, at the Oxford meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Lord Salisbury in the chair, spoke in the highest terms of these experiments. He was very enthusiastic at what he had seen at Baldwin's Park. He said that the work was all exceedingly well done, that the experiments were conducted with great care, and that they were very creditable to me."


"I have been decorated by the President of France, by the Sultan of Turkey, by the Queen of Spain, and by the King of Portugal, etc."

"How did you come to be decorated by the Emperor of China, Mr. Maxim ?"

"On one occasion, when there was great excitement in London about a terrible massacre of missionaries in China, I attended a meeting which, at the beginning, was very much in favor of the missionaries and against the Chinese, but I made a speech from the Chinese standpoint and succeeded in getting a resolution passed about as follows: This meeting regrets exceedingly that the American and English Missionary Societies will persist in sending missionaries to China to attack the ancient faith of the Chinese, and we are very sorry that the missionaries will not remain in their own countries, and allow the Chinese to enjoy their own religion in their own way in their own country.' My speech was taken down in shorthand and sent to the Chinese Ambassador. He had it nicely written out in Chinese, beautifully bound, and sent it to Li Hung Chang. The latter sent it to the Emperor, and the Emperor gave me a decoration."


"Tell about the exposure of the Dowe scheme."

"Some years ago a Hoboken barkeeper and a German tailor went to England to exploit the soundness of the alleged bullet-proof cloth. A whole town was placarded, to advertise Dowe's wonderful bullet-proof cloth, etc. The invention was shown at the El Cambria Theatre, and a great many of the old military men of England went to see this wonderful invention, for the secret of which the supposed inventors demanded two hundred thousand pounds. The thing actually shown, however, was not bullet-proof cloth, neither was it a bullet-proof coat, but a little shield about the size and thickness of a railway cushion, which was apparently of fibrous material, and would stop a bullet. A target was marked on a piece of paper, and a piece of paper folded over the gun. One of these pieces of paper fell into my hands. I saw where the bullet had entered, and where the flash came out. This was a complete 'give away,' as it showed exactly what was in the plan, viz., that it was a piece of sharp deception. I then put a notice in the paper that I had discovered a shield, steel, better than that of Herr Dowe; that his weighed twelve and one-half pounds to the square foot, and mine only ten; that he asked two hundred thousand pounds for his secret, whereas I would sell mine for seven shillings, sixpence. A great crowd of people came to see my supposed invention, and I showed the exact thing that Herr Dowe had, except that mine was thinner and lighter. I had used nickel steel where he had used chrome steel. Many people were very much disappointed, and many of them blackguarded me in the papers, but there was truth in all I said. I did exactly what I said I would, and beat Herr Dowe in the point of weight. This exposed the whole thing, and, at the end of three days, everybody in London knew that Herr Dowe and the Hoboken barkeeper had been deceiving the public. In fact, one of their own men revealed the secret, confessing that it was nothing more nor less than a piece of steel with a cushion around it. Then the newspaper men who had been abusing me roundly, because they did not understand, in the first place, invited me to London to a dinner, and Herr Dowe and the Hoboken barkeeper disappeared."

"To what do you attribute your success ?"

"I never tried to exploit an invention till I had one to exploit. That is, I never asked anyone to invest in a theory; and I never allowed my name to be used to promote worthless properties or projects."

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