SIR HIRAM MAXIM: THE CHRONIC INVENTOR
Hiram Maxim was born on 5th February 1840 in Sangerville, Maine, USA. From an early age, Hiram showed a keen interest in anything mechanical. Much of his childhood was spent in constructing models of watermills on the numerous streams that ran close to his home. Hiram used the local mills as a source of inspiration; in fact it was these same mills that prompted the emergence of his first invention. Many of the mills around Sangerville were plagued with rodents. Hiram helped to solve this problem by inventing the Automatic Re-setting Mousetrap! Unfortunately, he never saw fit to take out a patent on this invention.
Hiram Maxim spent his teens as an apprentice to a carriage builder. He showed great natural flair and expertise at everything he did, and his career developed apace. Hiram next worked as a mechanical draftsman before moving into instrument-making. All this was achieved before he reached the ripe old age of 19! When he was 20, working in Canada, Hiram perfected a coating for blackboards, so successful that large numbers of his specially coated boards were sold throughout North America.
Maxim became Chief Engineer of the First Electric Lighting Company when he was in his late thirties. Although this period in his life is not well documented, it is known that Maxim gained recognition for his work at the 1881 Paris Exhibition where he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur. In this eventful year he arrived in London as an employee of the United States Electric Lighting Company, charged with the task of reorganising their Cannon Street offices.
THE MAXIM GUN
It was about this time that Maxim began work on what was probably his most famous invention - the automatic machine gun. Housed in a small factory in London's Hatton Garden, Maxim invented and perfected a single-barrelled gun which could fire 666 rounds a minute. He also developed a smokeless powder used in the gun. Many eminent people, including the Prince of Wales, went to view this extraordinary new weapon, which was adopted by the British army in 1891. The gun was used in the Matabele War, in India, and by both sides in the Boer War. By 1905, nineteen different armies, and twenty-one navies were using his guns.
It soon became apparent that the Hatton Garden Works were far too small to cope with the huge demand for the Maxim machine gun. In 1884 Maxim re-located his works to Crayford. He took up residence in a house called 'Stoneyhurst', within easy travelling distance of his new works which amalgamated with an Erith-based firm of gunmakers. For a time, the new business was known as the Maxim-Nordenfeldt Gun and Ammunition Company Ltd. Later, in 1897, it became Vickers, Son and Maxim.
Maxim had developed an interest in flight and flying machines as early
as 1856, but had not been able to further his ambitions in this field.
The move to Crayford resurrected his interest in aviation. Spurred on
by two work colleagues, Maxim prepared drawings of a prototype 'flying
machine'. He estimated that it would take £5,000 and five years
of careful preparatory work to bring this pioneering project to fruition;
it would take three years to develop a special engine capable of powering
the machine. Maxim needed a new base for the development and testing of
his flying machine. It would be possible to build the machine at the Crayford
works, but additional space was required for testing and experimentation.
Maxim located a new site in Dartford near to the Bexley boundary at Baldwyns Park. Permission was obtained to erect a large hangar which could be used for experimental work on the development of an appropriate engine, propellers and flying surfaces. It was necessary to lay eighteen hundred feet of track on which the flying machine could be run and tested.
Work on the machine began in 1891. It was composed of a four-wheeled
platform onto which was attached a marine-type boiler made by Thornycroft.
The boiler was fired by naphtha, producing steam to a pressure of 320
lbs per sq in. The steam generated was fed to two engines, fitted to the
tubular steel framework supporting the flying surfaces. Two twin-bladed
propellers, each 18ft in diameter, were attached to the machine; these
were designed to propel it along the track. In the interests of stability,
the constituent framework extended either side of the machine to line
up with a restraining guard rail, located along both sides of the track
The whole machine weighed 8,000 lbs, with a flying surface measuring 120
ft long by 104 ft wide.
Two initial test runs were conducted. On the third run, on 31st July 1894, the 'Flying Machine', with Maxim at the controls, sped along the trackway. By the time the machine had covered 900 ft of track, it lifted off and covered a further 100 ft before a structure failure in the framework brought it down with a thud, damaging both the machine and the guard rail. Following an inspection of the guard rails, it became clear that the machine had lifted off the ground and had flown! The 'flight' only 100 ft in length, and at a height of only 2 ft, does rather pale into insignificance when compared to modern flight endurances. It did however warrant inclusion in the Guiness Book of Air Facts and Feats as' The largest aeroplane to lift itself off the ground briefly in the nineteenth century.'
In November 1894 a modified version of Maxim's record-breaking flying machine took part in a fund-raising event at Baldwyns Park to raise money for Bexley Cottage Hospital. A limited number of people were allowed to ride on the machine on payment of five shillings (25p).
Hiram Maxim became a naturalised British subject and was knighted in 1901. Shortly afterwards he left Baldwyns Park and moved to 'Rycrofts', a house at Dulwich Common. In 1908 he designed a new flying machine, which he had built the following year. This machine looked airworthy, but under test it was beset with problems, so the project was abandoned. The engine of this machine was finally wrecked during trials undertaken at Joyce Green, Dartford in 1910.
Sir Hiram Maxim died on 24th November 1916, bringing to a close a very full and eventful life. Towards the end of his life, he was asked about the lack of monuments to his work at Baldwyns Park. He replied that the authorities had demonstrated their appreciation by building the largest, finest and best-equipped lunatic asylum in the world there!