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Hiram Stevens Maxim

Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim
Born February 5, 1840
Sangerville, Maine
Died November 24, 1916
Resting place West Norwood Cemetery
Occupation Inventor
Children Hiram Percy Maxim, Florence Maxim Cutter, Adelaide Maxim Joubert
Relatives Hudson Maxim (brother)

Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (February 5, 1840November 24, 1916) was an inventor born in America who emigrated to England and adopted British citizenship. He was the inventor of the Maxim Gun, the first portable, fully automatic machine gun, and the ubiquitous mousetrap, and he lays a claim to inventing the lightbulb. He also experimented with powered flight, but his large aircraft designs were never successful. However, his "Captive Flying Machine" amusement ride, designed as a means by which to fund his research while generating public interest in flight, was highly successful.



Maxim was born in Sangerville, Maine in the United States of America. He became an apprentice coachbuilder at the age of 14 and ten years later took up a job at the machine works of his uncle, Levi Stephens, at Fitchburg, Massachusetts. He subsequently worked as an instrument maker and as a draughtsman.


His brother, Hudson Maxim, was also a military inventor, specializing in explosives.

He married his first wife, Jane Budden, in 1867. Their children were: Hiram Percy Maxim; Florence Maxim, who married George Albert Cutter, and Adelaide Maxim, who married Eldon Joubert, Ignacy Jan Paderewski's piano tuner.[1]

Hiram Percy Maxim followed in his father's and uncle's footsteps and became a mechanical engineer and weapons designer as well, but he is perhaps best known for his early amateur radio experiments and for founding the American Radio Relay League. His invention of the "Maxim Silencer" for noise supression came too late to save his father's hearing.[2]

He married his second wife, Sarah, daughter of Charles Hayes of Boston, in 1881. It is not clear if he was legally divorced from his first wife at this time.


Maxim emigrated to England in 1881 and became a naturalized Briton in 1899. Queen Victoria knighted Maxim in 1901 for his inventions, many of which had military applications.

The Maxim machine gun

1895 .303 tripod mounted Maxim machine gun. Photo: Max Smith
Maxim machine gun mounted on a Dunonald gun carriage

Maxim was reported to have said: "In 1882 I was in Vienna, where I met an American whom I had known in the States. He 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' ".[3]

As a child, Maxim had been knocked over by a rifle's recoil, and this inspired him to use that recoil force to automatically operate a gun. Between 1883 and 1885 Maxim patented gas, recoil and blow-back methods of operation. After moving to England, he settled in a large house formerly owned by Lord Thurlow in West Norwood where he developed his design for an automatic weapon, using an action that would close the breech and compress a spring, by storing the recoil energy released by a shot to prepare the gun for its next shot. He thoughtfully ran announcements in the local press warning that he would be experimenting with the gun in his garden and that neighbours should keep their windows open to avoid the danger of broken glass.[4]

Maxim founded an armaments company to produce his machine gun in Crayford, Kent, which later merged with Nordenfeldt and the Vickers Corporation in 1896, becoming 'Vickers, Son & Maxim'. Their updated design, referred to as the Vickers gun after Maxim's resignation from the board in 1911 on his 71st birthday, was the standard British machine gun for many years. With arms sales led by Basil Zaharoff, variants of the Maxim gun were bought and used extensively by both sides during World War I.

In his later years Maxim became profoundly deaf, as his hearing had been damaged by years of exposure to the noise of his guns.[5]


Maxim is also credited with inventing the common mousetrap and, as a long-time sufferer from bronchitis, he also patented and manufactured a pocket menthol inhaler and a larger "Pipe of Peace", a steam inhaler using pine vapour, that he claimed could relieve asthma, tinnitus, hay fever and catarrh.[6] After being criticised for applying his talents to quackery, he protested that: "it will be seen that it is a very creditable thing to invent a killing machine, and nothing less than a disgrace to invent an apparatus to prevent human suffering".[3]

Maxim developed and installed the first electric lights in a New York City building (the Equitable Insurance Company Building at 120 Broadway) in the late 1870s.[3] However, he was involved in several lengthy patent disputes with Thomas Edison over his claims to the lightbulb. One of these actions regarded the incandescent bulb, for which Maxim claimed that Edison was credited by means of his better understanding of patenting law (though in England Joseph Wilson Swan had already obtained the first patent in 1878). He claimed an employee of his (Maxim's) had falsely patented the invention under his own name, and that Edison proved the employee's claim to be false, knowing that patent law would mean the invention would become public property, allowing Edison to manufacture the lightbulb without crediting Maxim as the true inventor.

Flying machines

Maxim's flying machine

Maxim's father had earlier conceived of a helicopter powered by two counter-rotating rotors, but was unable to find a powerful enough engine to build it. Hiram first sketched out plans for a helicopter in 1872, but when he built his first "flying machine" he chose to use wings. Commencing work in 1889, he built a 145' long craft that weighed 3.5 tons, with a 110' wingspan that was powered by two compound 360 horsepower (270 kW) steam engines driving two propellers. In trials at Bexley in 1894 his machine rode on 1800' of rails and was prevented from rising by outriggers underneath and wooden safety rails overhead, somewhat in the manner of a roller coaster.[7] His apparent goal in building this machine was not to soar freely, but to test if it would lift off the ground. During its test run all of the outriggers were engaged, showing that it had developed enough lift to take off, but in so doing it damaged the track; the "flight" was aborted in time to prevent disaster. The craft was almost certainly aerodynamically unstable and uncontrollable, which Maxim probably realized, because he subsequently abandoned work on it.[8]

Captive Flying Machines

The Sir Hiram Maxim Captive Flying Machines operating at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 2006

In order to both fund his research into flight and to popularise the notion of flight, Maxim designed and built an amusement ride for the Earl's Court exhibition of 1904. The ride was based on a test rig he had devised for his research, and consisted of a large spinning frame from which cars hung captive. As the machine spun, the cars would be swung outward through the air, simulating flight. The ride was similar to the later Circle Swing ride, popularised in the USA by renowned roller coaster designer Harry Traver.

Maxim originally intended to use primitive aerofoils and wings to allow riders to control their flight, but this was outlawed as unsafe. As a result, Maxim quickly lost interest in the project, declaring the adapted ride as "Simply a glorified merry-go-round". Nevertheless, his company built several more rides of various sizes at The Crystal Palace and various seaside resorts including Southport, New Brighton, and Blackpool, all of which opened in 1904. Originally Maxim had only intended to build two, but a lengthy breakdown on the original Earl's Court ride forced him to build more in order to make the venture profitable. He had plans for further variations of the ride but his disillusionment with the amusement business meant that they were never realised.

Although he expressed regrets about the whole project, the rides were held in high regard within the amusement industry and the Blackpool ride still operates to this day as part of what is now the Pleasure Beach amusement park. Along with the same park's similarly historic River Caves, it is the oldest operating amusement ride in Europe. The Flying Machines has the distinction of being virtually unchanged from Maxim's original design. The Blackpool ride's name is now usually abbreviated to the "Flying Machine" or "Flying Machines", although the full name, "Sir Hiram Maxim's Captive Flying Machines", is given at the ride entrance.

In 2001 Disney's California Adventure opened, featuring the Golden Zephyr, a modern day recreation of the Traver version of the ride. The ride itself is much smaller than the Blackpool version with cars swinging out to a much less severe angle. Nevertheless, engineers from Disney visited Blackpool to inspect the Maxim ride (the only example of either version still standing) in order to help design their ride.

Grahame-White, Blériot, and Maxim Company

In 1911 he headed the newly formed Grahame-White, Blériot, and Maxim Company, founded with the two aviators and two hundred thousand pounds of capital. [9] He had hoped to produce military aircraft capable of scouting or dropping a 500 lb (230 kg) bomb, but his failing health and financial difficulties with his other enterprises restricted his ability to develop this enterprise before his death.[10]


Maxim died in London and is buried in West Norwood Cemetery.


Artificial and Natural Flight[11]


  • GB189700207 (1897 with Louis Silverman) - automatic fire mechanism
  • GB189607468 (1897) - gas action for machine guns
  • GB189607045 (1897) - breech mechanism of machine gun

Hiram Percy Maxim (son):


  1. ^ "Hiram Percy Maxim, Wireless Amateur No. 1, Defended Rights of Youth". New York Times. February 23, 1936, Sunday. "Radio amateurs, numbering more than 45,000 in the United States, are mourning the loss of a friend and faithful ally in the passing of Hiram Percy Maxim of Hartford, Connecticut. As an ardent wireless amateur Mr. Maxim is remembered by veteran experimenters of pre-war days by the musical tone of his quench spark gap which spelled out the call letters of his pioneer station." 
  2. ^ "Noise's Bogeyman". Time (magazine). January 4, 1932.,9171,742801,00.html. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "While mental hygienists, efficiency experts and city officials have been bewailing the maddening effects of city noise, Hiram Percy Maxim has been manufacturing noise mufflers at Hartford, Conn. Last week he announced that his Maxim Silencer Co., of which he is president and his only son Hiram Hamilton is chief engineer and whose factory is in Asylum Street, Hartford, will—besides continuing to make silencers for guns, motor exhausts, safety valves, air releases, in fact every kind of pipe which emits a gas—offer a consulting service in noise abatement." 
  3. ^ a b c Malcolm Brown 100 years of 'Maxim's Killing Machine' New York Times, 26 November 1985
  4. ^ Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, The London Encyclopedia, ISBN 0-333-57688-8 Serbia House
  5. ^ Action By Sir Hiram Maxim, The Times, 16 Jan 1915
  6. ^ The Times, Sir Hiram Maxim's great Invention, 19 July 1910
  7. ^ "Death Of Sir Hiram Maxim. A Famous Inventor, Automatic Guns And Aeronautics". The Times. 25 November 1916. 
  8. ^ Beril, Becker (1967) (in English). Dreams and Realities of the Conquest of the Skies. New York: Atheneum. pp. pp. 124-125. 
  9. ^ "Maxim Leads Air Company. Grahame-White, Bleriot and Maxim Company with $1,000,000 Capital.". New York Times. "Sir Hiram Maxim, who has just resigned from the ordnance firm with which his name has been for so long connected, will be the Chairman of a new company to be known as the Grahame-White, Bleriot, and Maxim Company, limited, with a total authorized capital of 200,000 ($1,000,000.)" 
  10. ^ Sir Hiram Maxim's Resignation. The Inventor And Aviation, The Times 23 March 1911
  11. ^ Hiram Stevens Maxim (1908). Artificial and Natural Flight. Whittaker. 

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