Strange New England

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The Dark Legacy of Hiram Maxim and the Devil's Paintbrush

Here’s a quick question that will make you wonder: which son of Maine has affected more lives upon the planet than any other? Seems like a silly idea, really, perhaps because there is no real way to answer such a subjective question. In the arts we have Stephen King, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edwin Arlington Robinson. In sports we have Louis Sockalexis, Cindy Blodgett, and Joan Benoit. Our political influence includes Lincoln’s first vice-president, Hannibal Hamlin, the hero of Little Round Top, Joshua Chamberlain, and Margaret Chase Smith. For inventors, though, I believe there is a clear choice. Yes, Milton Bradley was born in Vienna, Maine. He invented games we still play and was the first person to print kindergarten materials in the country. Yes, we have Chester Greenwood, our beloved inventor of the earmuff. We even have Alvin Lombard, who invented the rolling track we see on snowmobiles and tanks. Of course, we can’t forget L.L. Bean, the fellow who finally invented a waterproof boot. But to say that any of these inventors’ creations changed the world for the majority of humans on the planet might be forcing the issue. There is one man, however, whose life changed the world for almost everyone. His contribution impacted peoples’ lives so intensely, so devastatingly, that many will never be able to forget, or even to forgive him.

His name is Hiram Maxim. During his time on earth he was responsible for 221 patents. Named a knight by by Queen Victoria and knighted by King Edward, he was known to royalty and world leaders. H.G. Wells was a great personal friend. He knew and spent time with the Wright Brothers. His patents include curling irons, amusement park rides, steam pumps, light bulbs and flying machines – all fairly important and mostly benign inventions, making the world a better place. So what on earth could this inventor from Sangerville, Maine have created that links him so inextricably with human suffering and bloody death? The same invention that links him inextricably with national defense and sovereignty.

Hiram Maxim is the inventor of the first portable, fully automatic, self-loading and self-firing machine gun. How a poor boy from the wilds of Maine could have invented such a device and how he rose to such prominence is a fascinating tale, a true Horatio Alger story. Born in a humble shack by the side of the road near a brook at Brockway’s Mills, Maine,  Hiram began life as the son of a poor farmer and found as he grew that he was good at working with his hands, tinkering and making things work.

Born in 1840, he and his brother Hudson lived in the wilds of the northern woods and found that hunting, fishing and farming were his main interests as he grew. There wasn’t much else to do. He was adept with his hands and the use of tools. One day, he and his brother stood on a boulder on the edge of the family farm in Sangerville and each vowed that one day, they would be successful and wealthy men, a vow that ultimately saw fruition. At fourteen, he apprenticed out to a carriage-maker in East Corinth and was a handy hand at small boat-building. He invented a new mousetrap that kept the grist mill in Abbott free from vermin. But was too humble and quiet a place for his roaming mind and he left it to move to Fitchburg, Massachusetts to work at his uncle’s machine works. During his time in there, he found work as a draftsman and an instrument maker and it seemed that nothing he put his mind to eluded him. He disliked working with others and found solace only in situations where he was ultimately in charge. When the Civil War broke out, Hiram refused to enlist. He would not become involved in that conflagration for moral reasons. He did not believe in war as a way to solve humanity’s problems.  How strange that in years to come,  in the war to end all wars, his contribution would lead to more casualties than any other human on the planet.

His brother Hudson Maxim was a skilled inventor in his own right, but his specialty was explosives and he put his considerable talent to the task of solving one of the most perplexing problems of modern war. At the time, gunpowder produced a cloud of impenetrable white on the battlefield and very soon after the firing commenced, confusion ensued. Soldiers could barely see the person next to them, let alone the enemy a hundred yards away. The gunpowder also left heavy residue that could gum up the workings of the mechanism. The government was eager to find a replacement for the old recipe for gunpowder, one that would give them the advantage on any battlefield. Hudson delivered and we do not know how much he was assisted by his brother Hiram, but there was a major falling out between them over the patent. Hudson had the greater knowledge when it came to chemicals and ordinance, but when the patent was applied for from the patent office, the applicant only wrote the name “H. Maxim” was on the form. Hiram claimed smokeless powder for his own. Hudson disagreed, claiming that he was the rightful inventor. Though we may never know which of the brothers created smokeless powder, it was enough to split the two men apart for the rest of their lives.

Shortly after this, Hiram Maxim left the shores of America to work for the US Electric Lighting Company in London. He found life in Britain very much to his liking and he would eventually give up his United States citizenship to become a naturalized British citizen. His fortunes grew, as did his creativity. He created the world’s first automatic sprinkler system that not only put out the fire but notified the local firehouse, though there was little commercial interest in the invention. Riveting machines, inventions that prevented the rolling of ships at sea, and pine-menthol inhalers to assist those with asthma were all ideas he brought to the world. He dabbled and tinkered and was generally successful, but he was still restless and nowhere near as wealthy as he would like. But then, in 1882, he met another ex-patriot while visiting Vienna, Austria who gave him a piece of advice that would change the world. He said to Hiram, “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.” It was the seed that grew into a nightmare.

Maxim lived in a rather palatial country house in West Norwood. It was there that he threw his mind to the task of creating an efficient killing machine, one that would make him fabulously wealthy. The Gatling Gun, invented for the Union Army during the American Civil War by Richard Gatling, was the world’s best known rapid-fire weapon. It’s cyclical nature meant that the barrels did not overheat as long as it was not fired any higher than a certain rate. Perhaps its most problematic issue was that it was extremely heavy and once in place, it tended to stay there for the duration of the battle. Something lighter and faster was in Maxim’s mind.

Hiram Maxim had spent his youth hunting bears in the Maine woods and he recalled the kickback that the large caliber rifles gave his young shoulder whenever he fired. His genius lay in the idea that the force of the kickback, if properly harnessed, might be used to load the next bullet. It might even be used to have the gun actually fire itself, in effect, pulling its own trigger. The new smokeless powder that he may or may not have had a hand inventing meant almost no gumming up of the mechanism and with the later addition of a water jacket to act a radiator of heat for the barrel, Hiram Maxim found himself the proud inventor of a rifle that was capable of firing bullets over and over again with accuracy until the bullets ran out.

Maxim founded his company based upon the promise of this new weapon. With financial backing from railroad tycoon and steel foundry owner Edward Vickers, “Maxim, Son & Vickers” began creating the gun in the mid 1880s. The American friend’s advice had been sound. European governments bought so many automatic machine guns that the foundry ran day and night. Though he lost credit for the invention of the light bulb to Edison, he would now forever be remembered as the man who singlehandedly created the automatic rifle. Hiram Maxim had made the fortune and gained the fame that he and his brother vowed to achieve long ago on the boulder on the edge of property in Sangerville, Maine.

In June of 1890, the tall, white-haired and nearly deaf inventor and entrepreneur found his way back to his roots. He returned to the place where he grew up to meet with old friends and show the folks how he had fared in life. He brought one of his automatic rifles with him. Word of his visit quickly circulated and a rather large crowd gathered on the June day on the hill looking down on Dexter’s Lake Wassokeag. His aim was a demonstration of his invention to the locals, but this would also notably be the first time an automatic self-loading, modern machine gun would be fired anywhere in North America. With a grateful crowd’s silence, he announced that he would discharge the weapon first, and then others could have a ‘shot’ at it. All was ready and he gently squeezed the trigger, pointing the weapon at the same spot on the ground without moving it, effectively digging a hole. The gun fired at a rate of 666 shots a minute, a truly coincidental number for an invention that would later be called, “The Devil’s Paintbrush.”

Then, he told the audience to imagine an army trying to run up at them from the edge of the lake. He squeezed the trigger again, but this time he swept the aim of the weapon back and forth along the shore, shots ringing, water splashing, clods of dirt flung high into the air. One gun, he claimed, could lay an invading force low very quickly. Though it had not yet been used in battle, his prediction was frighteningly accurate. Next, he asked for Mrs. Bryant to come try her hand at the machine gun, probably because she was the oldest person present from the town. Then, his cousin Caroline Maxim True, had her turn at the trigger. Then, the show was over. He informed the crowd that it was expensive to fire the thing, costing him over $14.00 a minute.  He traveled the landscape of his youth for another week or so before returning to England where, in 1900, Queen Victoria would recommend him for a knighthood, though it was her son Edward who would eventually knight the boy from Sangerville. His weapon had proven itself in the Russo-Japanese War and several smaller British conflicts. Those in power who had possession of the new weapon were confident that it would give them the advantage in the next conflict.

Soon enough, the Great War would begin. Since his machine gun had been in service for over twenty-five years, it had been made and copied over and over again by other arms factories throughout Europe and America. Variants of the Maxim gun were used by both sides in World War I.  Though his invention would be used by the ground troops extensively, it would be attached to the newly invented tank and to the the aircraft flying the skies above the lines in France.How does one calculate the amount of human carnage caused by a weapon that could also cut down trees? How many of the 9 million combatants and 8 million civilian casualties of that war died from a bullet fired from a Maxim-designed gun? One need only look at the Battle of the Somme. On the first day of this battle, over 60,000 men died, 85% of them by machine gun fire. The other battles follow suit. Some historians have subtitled World War I as the “machine gun ” war.  The boy from Sangerville who as a lad had designed a mousetrap that rid the mill in Abbot, Maine entirely of its infestation, was the man who also made it possible for the nations of Europe to embark upon wholesale slaughter on the battlefield. Most of the deaths of World War One can be directly attributed to machine gun fire and man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.

As he sat at his table sipping his coffee and reading the lists of the fallen from his morning paper in West Norwood, did he ever cast his mind back to the quiet, tranquil setting of Sangerville Maine? Did he recall the pleasure with which he hunted bear and deer and did it ever concern him that his invention was at that moment taking the lives of millions? We will never know. Maxim was a man of his times and as a power-player, it is easy to think that he had no qualms about his invention. He might have liked the modern adage, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

Sir Hiram Maxim died in his adopted homeland at Streathan on Nov. 24, 1916, at the age of 77. The only formal education he ever had was from five years in the one-room schoolhouse of Sangerville, Maine, but his informal education made him the epitome of the term ‘damned Yankee.’ It can be easily argued that no other son of Maine has ever affected the world to the extent that this one man has with his creative mind and his gift of the automatic weapon, the “Devil’s Paintbrush.”


Bangor Daily News “Maine’s Hiram Maxim lead rags to riches life but remembered Yankee roots” 11-19-1975

Sir Hiram Maxim Biography – Sangerville Public Library

Hiram Maxim – Wikipedia Article

Encyclopedia Britannica Article – Hiram Maxim

PBS – They Made America Series entry – Hiram Maxim

PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia Commons


Tom Burby

Thomas Burby is the owner of and the author of THE LAST BOY ON EARTH and THE SEVEN O'CLOCK MAN, both available on Mr. Burby has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Maine and an MSEd in the Science of Education from the University of New England. He loves a good scary story...


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