Characters in History- Sir Hiram Maxim
Hiram Maxim was born in the north eastern United States in 1840. As he grew up he grew a fondness for tinkering with things. In his early years he invented many things that were simply ahead of his time and did not sell or he simply thought were not worth patenting. One such thing was the idea of the automatic sprinkler system. Unable to sell the idea he did not patent it and someone else made a fortune on it. At another time he invented a coating for chalkboards that many deemed too expensive so he did not patent it. He is also one man among many that came up against the titan of industry Thomas Edison. Like many he fought and lost the fight with Edison over the battle to claim invention of the incandescent light bulb. Unable to make it in America, he emigrated to Europe where Edison had yet to lock up patents and markets.
And this is where the story gets meat on its bones. As he was traveling Europe he ran into a fellow American acquaintance who gave him a piece of advice that would change the world forever. His friend told him '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.'. Within a few days, with that phrase still ringing in his ears and empty pockets occupying his mind, Maxim stumbled on an idea. He remembered shooting a Springfield rifle as a child and remembering how it "kicked like a mule". The thought that if all that kinetic energy of the recoil could be harnessed, he could perhaps make a rifle that cycled independently of the user. He envisioned the idea of a machine gun.
To test his theory he purchased a used Winchester lever action rifle, the typical cowboy arm that "won the west". Through an intricate system of levers and fabricated parts the rifle ejected the spent round and chambered a new one when fired. It became self loading. The principle of harnessing recoil was indeed sound and he immediately began to design his own firearm that would cycle on its own once the trigger was pulled. For two years beginning in 1883 he patented every conceivable way one could harness the energy to lock up the market. Eventually he used what is called "toggle" action to operate the gun, basically using the idea of the human knee combined with springs to operate the gun. It was a resounding and revolutionary gun, and just like his acquaintance said, it made him piles of money. His design was bought in great number by the British, Germans, and Russians. Many other nations bought smaller numbers. These were the machine guns used the most in World War 1, as the flower of a European generation was cut down by Maxim's "Devil's Paintbrush".
Maybe you have heard of him in regards to the gun, but did you know he almost beat the Wright Brothers to controlled powered flight by a decade? Designing a massive multi winged plane with a new lightweight steam engine (one man could lift it). His plane did actually have enough lift to take off but was damaged beyond repair in the test. Having funded the entire endeavor himself, Maxim was never able to rebuild or refine it. However he did invent the amusement park ride where you sit in a swing and using centrifugal force you are raised in the air and spin around.
What makes him a character? Well he went to court for bigamy having married more than one woman at once. He was also robbed once and years later as an old man he saw the robber at a train station and ran him down and beat him senseless. He also hated the Salvation Army and once rented a room as an office near where they held meetings and used the proximity to pull pranks and hurl spit balls at them.
You can read more about his flying machine, its design, and engines here is a neat site Here