Blue Plaques

MAXIM, Sir Hiram (1840-1916)

Plaque erected in 1966 by Greater London Council at 57d Hatton Garden, Holborn, London, EC1N 8HP, London Borough of Camden

All images © English Heritage

Profession

Engineer, Inventor

Category

Engineering and Transport, Industry and Invention

Inscription

SIR HIRAM MAXIM 1840-1916 INVENTOR and ENGINEER designed and manufactured THE MAXIM GUN in a workshop on these premises

Material

Ceramic

Inventor and engineer Sir Hiram Maxim is commemorated with a blue plaque at Hatton House, 57d Hatton Garden, Holborn, the founding site of the Maxim Gun Company and where he invented the first fully automatic machine gun.

Sir Hiram Maxim pictured in c.1894
Sir Hiram Maxim pictured in c.1894 © SSPL/Getty Images

Early Years

Hiram Maxim was born in Maine, USA, in 1840. His father, Isaac Maxim, was a farmer and wood-turner with a talent for invention – he had himself tinkered with ideas for an automatic gun and a flying machine. In 1864 Hiram joined his uncle, Levi Stevens, at his engineering works in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where he acquired knowledge of draughtsmanship and also worked on his technical and scientific studies. He went on to work for Oliver Drake, a gas machine builder and philosophical instrument maker, whom he greatly admired and to whom he attributed much of his later success.

Inventions and character

Maxim was a prolific inventor with skills across the fields of science, technology and engineering. Over his lifetime he took out numerous patents for his designs, including an electrical pressure regulator which he displayed at the 1881 Paris Exhibition, and for which he was made a member of the Légion d'honneur. Other innovations included a menthol inhaler, an improved mousetrap, a curling iron and various types of engine. Maxim also experimented with designs for a flying machine, though he was never successful in this. In 1878 he was the chief engineer to the United States Electric Lighting Company and was involved in the development and construction of electricity-generating machines and incandescent lamps. 

Despite his success, Maxim was flawed in character. He was extremely vain, often jealous of other inventors, and an adulterer, and allegedly sought the company of very young girls. He involved himself in lengthy disputes with, most notably, Thomas Edison over his claims to the light bulb, and even his own brother, over a patent for smokeless gunpowder.

The Maxim Gun

In 1881 Maxim moved to England and soon afterwards took a business lease on the premises at Hatton House, built in 1880. It was here that Maxim focused his attention on gun making, setting out to produce the first fully automatic gun. He was possessive of his designs, and in order to block competition made sure to patent every conceivable device concerning the firing mechanism.

Sir Hiram Maxim poses with an early version of the Maxim machine gun, c.1883
Sir Hiram Maxim poses with an early version of the Maxim machine gun, c.1883 © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By 1884 he had set up the Maxim Gun Company at Hatton House and soon started attracting the attention of high officials. His design was inspected by the British commander-in-chief, the Duke of Cambridge, and the Prince of Wales. Unlike earlier machine guns, the Maxim gun had a single barrel and completely automatic action, firing at the rate of ten rounds a second – designed to kill more quickly and easily than any gun that had come before it. The Maxim gun was adopted in the British Army in 1889 and in the Royal Navy in 1892.

In 1888, Maxim’s firm merged with Nordenfelt (a Swedish gun-maker based in London) and, having outgrown Hatton House, moved to Crayford, Kent. Eight years later, the business was absorbed by Vickers, the arms and aerospace firm, though Maxim remained director until 1911. Maxim was a tireless arms salesman throughout this time, not only bringing these mass killing machines into existence, but also making his fortune from them. Manufactured in several variants in Britain and also under licence in Germany, Russia and elsewhere, Maxim’s machine guns took countless lives over 50 years of war. It cannot be denied that his main invention had a great impact but it is difficult to see how those responsible believed it fitted the blue plaque awarding criteria of 'a positive contribution to human welfare or happiness.'

In 1900, Maxim became a naturalised British citizen and was knighted in 1901. He died at his home in Streatham, London, on 24 November 1916 at the age of 76.

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