Puppydog tails — 11 November 2009

This Remembrance Day go along to the corner of Clerkenwell Road and Hatton Garden.

There you will find a blue plaque to Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim (5th February, 1840 – 24th November, 1916) an American born inventor who emigrated to England and adopted British citizenship. He was the inventor of the Maxim gun, the first portable, fully automatic machine gun.

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.”

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 West Norwood where he developed his design for an automatic weapon. 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.

Maxim founded an armaments company to produce his machine gun which later merged with Nordenfeldt and the Vickers Corporation in 1896, becoming ‘Vickers, Son & Maxim’. Their updated design was the standard British machine gun for many years. Sales of the Maxim gun were bought and used extensively by both sides during World War I.

The Battle of the Somme fought from July to November 1916, was among the largest battles of the First World War. With more than 1.5 million casualties, it is also one of the bloodiest military operations recorded. The Allied forces attempted to break through the German lines along a 12-mile front north and south of the River Somme in northern France. The battle is best remembered for its first day, 1st July 1916, on which the British suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead – the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.

Maxim died four months after the start of the Battle of the Somme, profoundly deaf as his hearing had been damaged by years of exposure to the noise of experimenting with his gun.

If only he had stopped with his other weapon of mass destruction, history might have been different . . . the ubiquitous mouse trap.

As a curious footnote the building opposite the blue plaque was the Old Holborn tobacco factory, another purveyor of death.

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. It is tempting to blame Maxim and the other inventors of ever more efficient killing devices but, just because something is invented doesn’t mean that it has to be used. The fact that it is used brings the rest of the world into the equation. In other words, we are all to blame for the machine gun, poison gas, mines, etc.

    Politicians talk blithely of the “lessons of history” but we obviously don’t learn these lessons. We are still at war today and the weapons are becoming ever more deadly.

What do you have to say for yourself?