Kent Scientists

Hiram Maxim (1840-1916) 

Worked in Bexley and Crayford.

He built a flying machine and invented a gun

Maxim's Flying Machine 

‘The first time in the history of the world that a flying-machine actually lifted itself and a man into the air’, was on 31st July 1894, according to the man who achieved it, Hiram Maxim. The event was no crackpot stunt. Maxim was a talented and experienced engineer. Four years and much expense had gone into the development of a machine with engines powerful enough to propel it but light enough to allow it to lift off.

Maxim’s enormous machine was a type of biplane, 105 ft from wingtip to wingtip. It was driven by two wooden propellers each 12 ft in diameter, spun in opposite directions by a pair of 180 HP steam engines. With fuel and water and a crew of three on board the total weight was 3½ tons.

Maxim developed his steam-powered flying machine – they were not yet called aeroplanes - in the grounds of Baldwyn’s Park, near Bexley (now Bexley Park Sports and Social Club), where he was living at the time. For testing, he constructed a broad gauge railway for the machine to run along, fitted with two extra rails at a higher level to prevent it lifting off by anything more than a few inches. The machine also had rudders fore and aft for control.

As testing proceeded, sightseers came to witness the contraption hurtling down the runway at more than 40 mph, and some even took rides. One such was the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, accompanied by an admiral. The Prince was exhilarated by the experience, the admiral terrified.

The flying machine after it broke free and crashed

The test on 31st July began in the usual way. Bystanders held on to their hats as Maxim revved up the propellers and then released the anchors. The machine leapt forward and after 250 feet lifted gently off the main track, and continued, as intended, with the restraining track preventing it from rising further. But then, after 1000 feet, the upthrust became so great that part of the restraining mechanism snapped, and the machine broke free. Maxim found himself ‘floating in the air with the feeling of being in a boat’. When a further mishap damaged one of the propellers he shut off the steam and the machine came to an abrupt stop back on the ground. What Maxim claimed as the world’s first powered flight with a man on board, albeit an accidental one, had lasted just a few seconds and risen just a few feet off the ground.

Maxim was aware that the future of flying machines did not lie with the steam engine. He realised that internal combustion engines, then in their infancy, could do the job better, but would need more development time than he could spare. Twelve years would elapse before the Wright Brothers would prove this right. In the mean time Maxim used another of his inventions to give thrill-seekers a foretaste of what it is like to fly. This was the fairground ride he described as ‘Captive Flying Machines’ in which passengers travelled  in torpedo-shaped ‘cars’ suspended from a rotating pole, flying out at a hair-raising angle as the speed increased. One of Maxim’s original 1904 example was still in operation at Blackpool Pleasure Beach 110 years later.  

Hiram Maxim

Maxim in later life displaying his medals

Hiram Maxim was an American by birth and spent his early years at the family homestead, deep in the forests of Maine, where he claimed there were more bears than people. He soon made his mark as an inventor, an engineer and an entrepreneur. The first of his many patents was for a heated curling iron and another was for an improved mouse trap. At the age of 28 he formed a company to manufacture incandescent lamps – light bulbs – for which he held several patents, and another company to sell them. Two years later he was responsible for the first ever installation of incandescent lamps on a commercial building in America.

Maxim moved to England in 1881, possibly after he was exposed as having undergone a ‘form of marriage’ with a 15 year-old girl while still legally married to a wife who had borne him three children. In England he was joined by a third woman who served as his secretary, mistress and eventually wife.


An early model of the Maxim Gun

The invention which brought him wealth and fame – and eventually a knighthood – was the Maxim Gun, developed in a small factory in London’s Hatton Garden in the 1880s. (He claimed to have been advised by a fellow-American that the way to ‘make a pile of money’ was to ‘invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.') The Maxim was the first successful fully-automatic machine gun, capable of firing up to 600 rounds a minute. The principle was simple: the recoil energy from the firing of each bullet was harnessed to rapidly extract and eject the spent cartridge and insert a fresh one, the bullets being fed in side by side on a moving belt. From its first use in Africa in 1893-4 the deadly effectiveness of the new weapon was apparent. Soon, in Maxim’s own words, his ‘killing machine’ was in ‘universal use throughout the whole civilized world’, with Russia and Germany among the countries where it had been adopted.

In Britain Maxim guns were manufactured at a factory in Erith (on the site of the present Europa and Hamlet Trading Estates, with a Maxim Road nearby). The firm eventually merged into Vickers, and by the end of World War 1 as many as 14,000 people were employed in the Crayford area of Kent, making aeroplanes as well as guns.

Hiram Maxim died at his home in Streatham in 1916, the year in which the Battle of the Somme claimed more than a million lives on all sides. Countless thousands were mown down by various versions of the Maxim gun.