Close Encounters with Sir Hiram Maxim


Fred Peskett

Close encounters with Sir Hiram Maxim?, well not exactly, I must have missed him by some forty odd years. Never the less, our paths seem to have crossed several times.

Members of the Exhibition Study Group will know of Sir Hiram Maxim, inventor of the famous Captive Flying Machines installed in the Earls Court Exhibition grounds, the Crystal Palace, also at the fairgrounds at Blackpool and Southport. Hiram Maxim was also the inventor of the rapid firing Machine Gun (for which he was knighted in 1901 when he became a naturalised British subject) and as an aviation pioneer, it was from the latter areas that our paths crossed.

Hiram Maxim was born in the small town of Sangerville, Maine in the United States on the 5th of February 1840. Following an uneventful school life he became an apprentice coachbuilder, later on working as a machinist in a Maine factory and then for a short time in shipbuilding. During this time he developed an interest in all things mechanical with an appetite for experimenting on mechanical devices. He became unhappy in America and came to Britain in his late twenties where he settled down at South Norwood. His passion for mechanics continued resulting in several patents for a proposed helicopter and a lighter than air flying machine. However it was his idea for a quick firing machine gun, that finally gave him fame and to some degree fortune.

It was also the machine gun which became my first encounter with Maxim, during an engineering apprenticeship with Vickers Armstrong Ltd., Crayford, Kent. The Crayford works was originally known as the Vickers Sons and Maxim Works and prior to that as the Maxim Works. Although most of the factory buildings during my time there were constructed in the 1930’s there were a few that once formed part of the original 1890’s Maxim factory.

In 1953 during the second year of my apprenticeship, I was assigned to the Vickers Machine Gun Department, for "fitting" experience. The building where guns were built was one of the original Maxim workshops used for the assembly and testing of machine guns since Hiram Maxim first developed his water cooled weapons in the 1890’s. Very little had changed in the intervening years.

It may be of interest to know how the gun was assembled and tested, a procedure that probably had remained unchanged from the very first production.

Looking back I doubt if the workshop would ever been given a clean bill of health as a workplace in 2000. It had a clay/dirt floor, with very little window light and certainly no ventilation. A loft was a storeroom for all the piece parts used to assemble the machine gun, each part being carefully oiled and wrapped in greaseproof paper, Alongside was the drawings and tool stores. The

parts and fabrications were manufactured elsewhere in the Crayford Works. Apart from minor changes the machine gun was almost identical to maxim’s original design. The guns were assembled in batches of six (there was no good reason for this). Armed with a job ticket, I would go to the finished parts stores and collect six trays of piece parts, (just like a meccano set.) A set of blue prints and all the jigs and fixtures needed to assemble a gun. The first job was to serial number each item, and enter the serial numbers into a log book that dated back to before the second world war . The reason for only six to a batch was that all screws and replacement parts for this batch were unique to

this batch only, the next batch would have different sizes of threads and minor but significant differences to dimensioning. When assembled and ready for shipment, no two guns within the range of six serial numbers would go to the same destination. This ensured that if the weapon had to be abandoned on a battlefield, it could not be made serviceable again by using the parts from another gun. Having been serial numbered, the barrel was handed to a very aged fitter for final straightening, he was well past retirement when I was there. He had been straightening machine gun barrels for well over forty years and was probably the only person who had the knack of doing it ! His only tools were several lead hammers, a large block of tree trunk that had almost become fossilised, a "vee" shaped bracket mounted on a tripod also a box with a light source inside hung on the wall. A small hole in the face of the box displayed a glass with several concentric rings engraved and filled with black enamel. He would take a barrel, place it in the vee shaped tripod and point the business end at the light, rotate the barrel and determine the straightness, if there was a slight kink he would see this by the off centring to the rings on the glass. Such a barrel would then be placed at an angle on the block and given several delicate blows with one of the hammers. Such was his skill that nine times out of ten he would take out any imperfections with one hit. The barrel would then be passed to an inspector who would test the straightness with a sophisticated device called a collimator, the total permissible waver allowed was less than 0.0005 inches (half of one thousandth part of an inch) over the 18 inch length of the barrel.

The assembly of the gun itself was very much a straightforward procedure, attention being paid to keeping ones hands constantly covered with lanolin to prevent rusty finger marks on the polished steel components. Then came the best bit, test firing !

The completed gun was taken up into a tower above the loft to a test chamber and fitted to a dummy mount, a couple of hundred rounds were then fired into a hopper that was filled with damp sand, these rounds were special lead bullets, this test ensured that the mechanisms were all working correctly. The gun would then be taken to a range some two miles away and put through its paces with live rounds to test the accuracy and final proofing.

As the junior on the team I had to climb up into the hopper after each firing to recover the compacted lead for re-cycling, a very mucky task indeed.

My next encounter was barely a few months after I left the Machine Gun Department and continued the "Fitting" in the Power Samas Assembly Shop (Power Samas was one of the Electro-Mechanical punched card tabulating and accounting machines, before computers) Vickers owned land adjacent to the Crayford Greyhound Track, the Power Samas Shop was a single story building some 60 ft long by 60 ft wide, located at one end was about 400 ft of rough land leading to the front doors, two long iron rails stretched from the doors to the end of this field, approximately 9 ft apart, every 10 ft or so was a giant wooden sleeper, the track finally disappeared into a row of poplar trees which marked the boundary. This building and land was once rented by Hiram Maxim and was where he constructed his first steam powered flying machine which actually lifted off the ground on July 31st 1894 even if only for a brief moment with a height of just a few inches. One of the sleepers tilted during the flight and severed the airscrew causing the flying machine to crash into deep muddy ground. The machine was a write off with a financial loss to Maxim of 25,000.

In order to raise capital for his next flying experiment he constructed a small model of his idea for a Captive Flying Machine in his back garden at South Norwood. A selection of the "Gentlemen from the Press" were invited to his home for a demonstration of his new machine on March 4th 1904. The resulting stories in the Times and other newspapers caused a sensation, especially Maxim’s announcement that he intended to build a full size contraption for the Earls Court Exhibition and that an even larger version was being designed to thrill the crowds at the Crystal Palace, he further gave a piece of prophetic foresight, in that his experiment would lead to a lighter than air machine that would be of enormous value to this country as a military engine of war.

The flying machines were very popular, whizzing joyriders around at speeds of up to 100 mph. Hiram Maxim used one of the gondolas on the Crystal Palace machine to fit flying controls, which gave him much information on the theory of aerodynamics.

After several more attempts to build a real flying machine Sir Hiram was overtaken by other pioneers, the Wright Brothers in the U.S.A. Fellow ex patriot, Samuel Franklin Cody in Britain and Louis Bleriot in France. By the time he died in 1916, soldiers on the war fronts were using the weapons of his creation, and real flying machines were engaged in aerial combat.

The Crystal Palace Captive Flying Machine remained in service up to 1946 then gradually fell into decay until 1948 when a fire in the motor house destroyed much of the supporting framework, it was finally reduced to scrap in 1949 by the George Cohen 600 Group.

My third and perhaps final encounter is through collecting Crystal Palace ephemera and the Exhibition Study Group, whereby I have put together a small collection of aviation related items of events that happened at the Crystal Palace. Hiram Maxim and his flying machine being part of the story.

The Vickers factory at Crayford I understand was closed in the 1970’s and turned into smaller factory premises, most of the original features have now been demolished. The Maxim aircraft shed was demolished up to the tops of the window levels in the late 1950’s and rebuilt as part of a printing works, what was left of the track was also removed at this time.

During the fifth and final year of my apprenticeship I had yet another encounter with a famous aviation engineer, Barnes Wallis, but that is another story.

George Cohen’s 600 Group have over the years been responsible for demolishing The Giant Wheel at Earls Court, the Water towers at Crystal Palace in 1940 and the Dome of Discovery and much of the South Bank Exhibition in 1952. (Did I see one of their engineers sizing up the one at Greenwich last week?)

© Exhibition Study Group 2001