Who's Who - Sir Hiram Maxim

Sir Hiram Maxim Sir Hiram Maxim (1840-1916), an inveterate inventor who designed the machine gun bearing his name, was born on 5 February 1840 in Maine, USA the eldest son of a mechanic.

Demonstrating signs of his prolific inventiveness at an early age, Maxim applied for and obtained the first of many patents at age 26 for a hair-curling iron.  This was rapidly followed by a machine for producing illuminating gas and a locomotive headlamp.

Recognising his talents he was approached and subsequently employed by the United States Electric Lighting Company, where he served in the capacity of chief engineer.  While in their employ he designed a method of producing carbon filaments.

Moving to London Maxim began to toy with the problems associated with the design and manufacture of automatic weapons, from which resulted his most famous innovation; in 1884 he unveiled the Maxim Machine Gun.

In designing his machine gun, Maxim utilised a simple, clever concept.  The gas produced by the explosion of the powder in each machine gun cartridge itself created a recoil which served to continuously operate the machine gun mechanism.  No external power was needed.

His initial design, which was water cooled and fed via a belt, allowed for a theoretical rate of fire of up to 600 rounds per minute (half that number in practice).  He later invented (in 1891) a smokeless cartridge, cordite, which further improved the effectiveness of his machine gun.

Maxim successfully sold his new weapon to the British army, although there were many in the army's high command who could not foresee a practical use for the weapon in a war of movement (although it was used to impressive effect by the British during the Matabele war in 1893-94).

With other armies expressing interest in buying his machine gun, including Germany, Maxim nevertheless continued to innovate in unrelated areas, producing in the 1890s an airplane powered by a light steam engine.

Having invented literally hundreds of items varying from a mousetrap to a gas motor Maxim received a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1901.  His company, the Maxim Gun Company, was later absorbed into Vickers Ltd., of which he became a director.  The Vickers machine gun subsequently became the standard issue weapon of its type in the British army during the First World War.

Sir Hiram Maxim died in London on 24 November 1916, while the Great War was still raging, at the age of 76.

'Strafing' is attacking ground troops by machine guns fired from low-flying aircraft.

- Did you know?

Who's Who