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Captive Flying Machines (100 Years): Maxim Biography

In the early 1890s, Maxim was in a position to begin work on a subject that had fascinated scientists and inventors for many years, the creation of a manned flying machine*. He had had an interest in the subject for many years, and the move to Crayford finally allowed him the chance to design and build a machine of his own. He estimated it would take five years and £3,000 to design and build, and include the creation of a specialised steam engine to power the contraption. He would be able to build the machine at Crayford, and test it at Baldwyn’s Park, a forty-acre site that he hired specially.

[* To avoid confusion, it should be pointed out that the phrase “flying machine” refers to a primitive aircraft. The amusement ride, such as the Blackpool one, was always referred the “Captive Flying Machines”, for reasons that will be explained later]

The flying machine project was careful not to set its aims too high, in any sense of the word. The idea was solely for the machine to generate enough lift to raise itself by a few inches, and then run along the underside of a specially built track. He predicted that, once this was achieved, “Within a few years, someone – if not myself, someone else – will have made a machine which can be guided through the air, will travel with considerable velocity and will be sufficiently under control to be used for military purposes”. It is worth noting that Maxim’s first thoughts were for how the machine could be used in wartime, rather than for any peaceful purpose.

One thing for which Maxim had a considerable talent was exhibiting his inventions, and making them exciting to the layman. From making spectacular use of his arc lamps to light grand buildings, to using his gun to blast the initials "FJ" into a target in order to impress Austrian emperor Franz Josef with its speed and accuracy, he had always found a way of making a show of his creations. In the case of the flying machine, he was always willing to welcome VIPs including the Prince of Wales (King Edward VII to be) and his son Prince George (later George V), for whom he would perform private demonstrations of both his flying machine and machine gun. The publicity from these visits would no doubt be very influential in persuading potential backers to support the project.

On July 31st 1894, he gave the first public demonstration of the flying machine at Baldwyn’s Park, improving the spectacle by extending the length of the guide rails, and by “piloting” the machine himself. Both he and the crowd got more than they expected when the machine broke free of the rails and briefly achieved free flight. Despite the crew being thrown off their feet, Maxim was able to shut off the power, and the machine crashed back to the ground, causing substantial damage. Maxim could now claim, with some justification, that he was the designer of the first machine to take off unaided (i.e. without the use of ramps or other accessories), and achieve self-powered free flight – even if he hadn’t meant it to. The machine was repaired and strengthened, and in November 1894, he invited the public to another exhibition at Baldwyn's Park, at which visitors were able to take part in what could be called the first ever “pleasure flight”, paying five shillings each for ride on the pilot's platform during the short trip.

After a further demonstration the following year, backers became disillusioned with the relatively limited scope of the flying machine project, and pulled out. Furthermore, London County Council ordered him to vacate Baldwyn’s Park, as it had been chosen as the site of their new lunatic asylum. Meanwhile, the Maxim Gun Company was also in difficulty, as the British Government had invoked a law enabling them to use Maxim’s designs to make the gun in their own factories, paying him only a very small royalty. At the turn of the century, the Maxim Gun Company merged with Vickers Sons and Company, and was duly renamed “Vickers Sons and Maxim”.

One of the few things that might have brought a smile to Maxim’s face during this difficult time was the success of the Maxim Gun in Sudan. In 1898, the Daily Telegraph paid homage to Maxim’s success, declaring, “In most of our wars, it has been the dash, the skill and the bravery of our officers and men that have won the day, but in this case the battle was won by a quiet scientific gentlemen living down in Kent”. Having become so well respected in Britain, he adopted British citizenship in 1899, and was knighted by Queen Victoria in the 1901 New Year Honours. Victoria died in January of that year, and so the newly crowned Edward VII, by now a good friend of Maxim’s, conducted the ceremony.  

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