This Day in History: Hiram Stevens Maxim Dies

Hiram Stevens Maxim

U.S.A. –-( On November 24, 1916, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim died at the age of 76. Despite holding patents for everything from mousetraps to curling irons, Maxim is best known for his machine gun.

Born in Maine in 1840, Hiram tried for years to become successful in a variety of professions during the first 40 years of his life. It wasn’t until he moved to Europe that things really took off for him.

Before delving into Maxim’s history “across the pond,” there’s one more important thing to happen while he lived in the United States. In 1869, he and his first wife Jane had their first child: Hiram Percy Maxim. Percy would go on to patent the first successful firearms suppressor – the Maxim Silencer. Since both father and son shared the name Hiram, many assume that the same man who invented the machine gun also invented the suppressor, but that’s not the case.

OK, now to Hiram Stevens Maxim’s accomplishments in Europe. He reportedly told a newspaper that it was an American colleague in Vienna who, in 1882, quipped, “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.”

The advice stuck with him, and he channeled an event from his childhood to help with a new gun design. Sharp recoil from a rifle knocked him over once when he was a kid, and Maxim now wondered if there was a way to harness the energy from the recoil to reset the gun for subsequent shots.

Plaque in London where Maxim’s shop stood

He developed and crafted his machine gun in a shop just two miles from London Bridge over the Thames River. The shop has long since been torn down and replaced, but a plaque on the wall notes the significance of the location. It was at a second London address – his home – where he tested his machine guns in the garden. Ever the courteous neighbor, he ran ads ahead of his tests in the paper, warning neighbors to keep their windows open during testing; better to be exposed to loud noise than to have broken windows, I suppose.

With financial backing from Edward Vickers, who had made his money in the railroads and steel industry, Maxim started his own arms company. The two men’s names would be forever linked with machine guns. It was an improvement on Maxim’s original design that became known as the Vickers machine gun.

In 1899, Maxim became a British subject, renouncing his American citizenship. Two years later, in 1901, he was knighted by Queen Victoria.

German soldiers using Maxim’s gun during WWI

By 1911, at the age of 71, Maxim was almost completely deaf from years of machine gun fire. He resigned from the company he created with Vickers to dedicate his time to a lifelong interest that put what little hearing he had left at low risk: powered flight.

Though he had already put the arms industry behind him by the time World War I broke out in 1914, Hiram Stevens Maxim had already made quite a bit of money from the advice of his American colleague in Vienna all those years before.

When he passed away in 1916, the Europeans were doing a bang-up job of cutting each others’ throats with his machine guns. It’s probably a good thing that he didn’t live long enough to see the full-scale involvement of American troops in World War I, many of whom were cut down by guns bearing his name.

About Logan MeteshLogan Metesh

Logan Metesh is a historian with a focus on firearms history and development. He runs High Caliber History LLC and has more than a decade of experience working for the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, and the NRA Museums. His ability to present history and research in an engaging manner has made him a sought after consultant, writer, and museum professional. The ease with which he can recall obscure historical facts and figures makes him very good at Jeopardy!, but exceptionally bad at geometry.