Sir Hiram Maxim

by Fred Peskett


            A recent find of mine is a newspaper cutting from the Norwood News dated Friday January 20th 1961. The article, written by W.C. Lockwood was triggered by the news that Lambeth Council was planning to demolish Thurlow Lodge in Norwood Road, West Norwood to build a new housing estate. Thurlow Lodge was once the home of the inventor, and engineer Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim-

            Born in Maine in the United States in 1840 to a poor family, the young Hiram had very little education, and left home at a very early age to wander around the U.S.A. doing odd jobs such as a carriage painter, a cabinet maker, and the odd job in the field of mechanical engineering. He desperately wanted to become a professional engineer, so he studied hard while he was working. But he found himself in trouble with several landlords by constructing his inventions in his lodgings, however, by the time he was thirty he had several patents approved by the U.S. authorities with some even making money.

            Among his inventions were an automatic water sprinkler, a gas engine, a hand operated vacuum cleaner, and an inhaler for asthma suffers, (see article in Journal Number 101 page 31). He also invented the electric incandescent lamp, in competition with Thomas A Edison, There was a law suit to determine who was the real inventor, which went in the favour of Thomas Edison who claimed to have invented it ahead of Maxim by a few days. Never-the-less, Hiram Maxim still continued to manufacture lamps as confirmed by a post card from Olympia in 1905 (see figure 1).

            But it was the Automatic Machine Gun, The “Maxim” Gun which brought fame to Hiram Maxim. He offered the gun to both the United States Army and Naval authorities, but they rejected it as being totally impractical. It was this rejection which prompted Hiram to leave the U.S.A. and come to London, where he purchased Thurlow Lodge, but still keeping to his U.S. heritage, he had four fine stone American Eagles on the pillars capping the gate posts at the entrance to his front garden.

            Hiram Maxim offered his machine gun to the British War Office, at the time the Sudan War was on their hands, the  Maxim Gun was used against the Dervishes by Lord Kitchener with great effect. The Maxim Machine Gun was manufactured at the Vickers & Son works at Crayford in Kent, later Hiram Maxim joined the company and it became Vickers, Son and Maxim Ltd. The success of his machine gun in 1898 prompted Maxim to become a British subject and he was knighted for his service to the Army by Queen Victoria in 1901, shortly before her death.

            The illustration is of the stand at the Electrical Exhibition, Olympia, 1905. Showing Maxim Electric Lamps.

            It was at Thurlow Lodge that Maxim developed and built his first “Captive Flying Machine” which he later constructed in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, with others on the Blackpool seafront and at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre.

            In some ways Sir Hiram Maxim was a little, if not a lot eccentric. He had a great dislike to the sound of a Salvation Army Band which used to play near to his house. He invented another “Spring Loaded Gun” which would fire handfuls of beans at a wall above where they would play, they never found out where the beans had come from, however, there is also no evidence to show that it caused them to stop playing!

            Later Sir Hiram moved from Thurlow Lodge to “Ryecotes” on Dulwich Common, his American Eagles and his workshops went with him. It is said that one day he went to one of the workshops to view a piece of metalwork required for one of his inventions and found that it was not quite up to the standard that he wanted, in a rage he threw the metalwork into the garden, later when the workman had gone home he retrieved it and placed it back on the workbench with a gold sovereign tucked under it, this was his way of saying “sorry”

            Sir Hiram Maxim died at Ryecotes in 1916, aged 76 and was interred in Norwood Cemetery.


© Exhibition Study Group 2012