SIR HIRAM MAXIM (1840-1916), an inveterate inventor who designed the machine gun bearing his name, was born on 5 February 1840 in Maine, USA the eldest son of a mechanic. Demonstrating signs of his prolific inventiveness at an early age, Maxim applied for and obtained the first of many patents at age 26 for a hair-curling iron. This was rapidly followed by a machine for producing illuminating gas and a locomotive headlamp. Recognising his talents he was approached and subsequently employed by the United States Electric Lighting Company, where he served in the capacity of chief engineer. While in their employ he designed a method of producing carbon filaments.
Moving to London, Maxim began to toy with the problems associated with the design and manufacture of automatic weapons, from which resulted his most famous innovation; in 1884 he unveiled the Maxim Machine Gun. In designing his machine gun, Maxim utilised a simple, clever concept. The gas produced by the explosion of the powder in each machine gun cartridge itself created a recoil which served to continuously operate the machine gun mechanism. No external power was needed. His initial design, which was water cooled and fed via a belt, allowed for a theoretical rate of fire of up to 600 rounds per minute (half that number in practice). He later invented (in 1891) a smokeless cartridge, cordite, which further improved the effectiveness of his machine gun. Maxim successfully sold his new weapon to the British army, although there were many in the army’s high command who could not foresee a practical use for the weapon in a war of movement (although it was used to impressive effect by the British during the Matabele war in 1893-94).
With other armies expressing interest in buying his machine gun, including Germany, Maxim nevertheless continued to innovate in unrelated areas, producing in the 1890s an airplane powered by a light steam engine. Having invented literally hundreds of items varying from a mousetrap to a gas motor Maxim received a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1901. His company, the Maxim Gun Company, was later absorbed into Vickers Ltd., of which he became a director. The Vickers machine gun subsequently became the standard issue weapon of its type in the British army during the First World War. Sir Hiram Maxim died in London on 24 November 1916, while the Great War was still raging, at the age of 76.
Machine guns inflicted appalling casualties on both war fronts in World war One. The standard military tactic until this war was the infantry charge. While the British army only issued two machine guns per battalion, the Germans had been testing and using them since developing their version of the Maxim many years before, and placed a row of machine guns in front of their lines to ensure than the machine gun crews were given a full view of the battlefield. At the Somme, their efficiency lead to the deaths of thousands of British troops within minutes of the battle starting.
The Maxim was a heavyweight piece of equipment and, in its early days, various methods of transportation were tested. The usual mount was a small gun carriage which was commonly pushed; though it could also be towed by two or three cyclists using a solid bar between the bicycles.
1901 VICKERS MACHINE GUN TANDEM TRICYCLE
Mounted with two Maxim machine guns
21″ / 20″ Frame
Tyres: Pneumatic front, Solid Rear
Several prototype military tricycles and quadricycles were also adapted for carrying the Maxim, though the ensemble was invariably too heavy to move across rough ground and could only really be used on a road. The tandem tricycle illustrated below was built by Vickers Son & Maxim. It carried two machine guns hinged and mounted at the rear. 1000 rounds of ammunition were loaded into boxes mounted onto long ‘tripod’ tubes fitted to both sides of the tricycle; these tubes were hinged and when the machine guns were ready for firing they became braces to dig into the ground to hold the outfit in place. The weight of the tricycle plus guns and ammunition was 374lbs. It was too heavy to pedal up an incline (though it could be towed by other cyclists).
Despite its impracticality, the prototype military tandem tricycle with mounted Maxim machine guns is surely the most impressive outfit ever conceived. Though it was not practical, and, with the invention of motorised transportation, soon outdated, its concept is brilliant. So I’ve designed the one featured here for military displays. It is the first time since the original that such a machine has been built. The rear portion is an original 1890s tandem tricycle fitment with Starley axle, designed to be fitted to a tandem to turn it into a tandem tricycle.
As you can see by comparing it with the original publicity photos, there are two modes of operation:
- Pedalling (or towing by other bicycles), illustrated above.
- Firing: the support brackets are lowered for stability to transform the tandem tricycle into a the equivalent of a machine gun carriage, below.
The bicycle artillery corps is a body of recent creation which seems to be destined for a great future. In fact, it is now in a fair way of doing reconnoissance duty in place of the cavalry. How much superior, indeed, is a bicyclist to a horseman. He is always ready to start immediately, while the latter has to wait to harness and saddle his steed. Then, again, the bicycle is faster than the horse, and requires less care; and the fact that no food is needed constitutes an appreciable advantage in a campaign in which so many difficulties are met with in the way of procuring forage. It is true that the bicycle can be used only upon roads, but in France and Germany the byroads, large and small, are so accessible that the use of it is capable of being made general.
Such considerations have led the large English house of Vickers, Sons & Maxim to devise a machine gun tricycle, which we represent in the accompanying engravings. Two light Maxim guns are mounted upon the tricycle, the weight of which is 120 pounds, while that of the two guns is 54, that of the tripods 106, that of the spare pieces 8, and that of the 1,000 cartridges, with their case, 86. This constitutes a total weight of 374 pounds, to which is to be added that of the two men who ride the vehicle. It seems that such a tricycle is capable of running at a high rate of speed upon a level. Upon up-grades, however, it is necessary to dismount and push the machine.
– Scientific American Magazine, 1901