A member of a noteworthy family of mechanics and draftsmen, Hiram Maxim, thecreator of the first practical automatic machine gun, also experimented witha steam-powered flying machine in 1894. At age twenty-four, in his uncle's engineering firm in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, he invented a curling iron. Around 1868, he created a locomotive headlight that came into common use. His later inventions included an automatic fire extinguisher, automatic gas generator, engine governors, steam and vacuum pumps, inhalers for bronchitis, a mousetrap, automatic spindle, density regulator for equalizing the illuminating value of gas, and an electrical pressure regulator, which won him a French Legion of Honor.
Born in Sangerville, Maine, Maxim was the eldest son of a farmer and woodworker. At age fourteen, Maxim was apprenticed to a carriagemaker and learned numerous other trades in New England and Canada. As a hobby, he enjoyed pugilismand toyed with the idea of becoming a professional boxer, but instead he moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where he worked for an engineer. From there he migrated to Boston and worked for a maker of scientific instruments, then to New York, where he was employed at the Novelty Iron Company and secured hisfirst patent for a curling iron. At age thirty-eight, he became the chief engineer for the United States Electric Lighting Company. His first major contributions were the graphite-rod incandescent light bulb in 1878, a standardized coating of carbon lamp filaments in 1880, and an electric current regulator, which won international praise in 1881 at the Paris Exhibition.
While in France, Maxim became intrigued with the possibility of creating an automatic weapon, something European designers had been struggling to produce.Maxim went to work in London, and later became a British subject. At his laboratory in Hatton Garden, London, he produced his Maxim single-barrel automated gun in 1884, which was belt-fed and water-cooled, an advancement over thehand-cranked Gatling gun. The device, capable of firing 666 rounds per minute, loaded, fired, then extracted and ejected the cartridge, using energy derived from the momentum of recoil. A subsequent model, dubbed the Vickers Maxim,became standard British Army issue. Later, he developed the pom-pom gun, which launched one-pound shells, and the aerial torpedo gun.
Maxim's contributions to the British military earned him a knighthood by Queen Victoria in 1901. He continued to work on the delayed-action fuse and cordite, a smokeless powder made from nitroglycerin and cotton, which he evolved with the help of Hudson Maxim, his brother and partner. Maxim's improvements in weaponry gave significant advantage to British forces during the Boxer Rebellion and the Boer War. Soldiers, grateful for the improvements, chanted: "Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun and they have not!" Soon, the gun came into use in every major country. It was not until the perfection of tankwarfare that the machine gun slaughter of World War I was successfully countered.
Maxim's total output included 271 patents. He tried without success to createa steam engine light enough to power a biplane, but recognized that he needed an internal combustion engine to achieve success. He died in New York on November 24,1916.